The Pacific Heart

Psychiatry, Spirituality and Culture

Hot Tips for Relationship Success, Part 2

The Owl and the Crocodile: Hot tips for relationship success

Owl and heart. By Elizabeth Boorstein.
Seymour Boorstein, M.D., was my main mentor during my psychiatry residency. Every Tuesday for two years, I left the skyscrapers and academic institutions of San Francisco, traversed the Golden Gate Bridge, and ranged over the Marin hills to meet with him. There was something elemental and magical about the trip; San Francisco clouds and fog would part and disappear as I crossed the ocean, and then the sun would smile on me, a harbinger of enlightenment. My personal fog over the care of my patients would similarly evaporate as I met with him, at his house atop a wooded hill.

It was like a weekly pilgrimage to the mountaintop to receive teachings from my guru. Seymour would probably be the last person to think of himself as a guru, though. He was sage-like, but absolutely humble. He was one of the kindest people I'd ever met, filled with gentle wisdom wrapped in warmth and caring. One of his favorite sayings was "don't add insight to injury," a complement to "don't give them an insight, give them a piece of bread." Nurturing your patients was far more important than blinding them with your "intellect." I ate this approach up, as it was a welcome relief from traditional analytic theory, which demanded a golden interpretation at precisely 20 minutes into the 50-minute therapy hour. The analyst's words, like a knife, could be sharp and unhelpful, even if true.

Seymour stood at the opposite end of the spectrum from that approach, which led other supervisors to snort derisively at ‘errors' made by their charges as they struggled to care for their patients. His approach was to remove the obstacles to love and kindness. "I used to be so stiff—even stiffer than you were when you started with me," he'd say. "Now I'm loosey-goosey!" Seymour was trained as a psychoanalyst, but really found himself through his explorations in the human potential movement. His wife is Sylvia Boorstein, noted Buddhist teacher and author, who I'm also proud to call a teacher and friend of mine. Seymour still sees patients in Marin—80 years old and going strong!

I'm pleased to announce that Seymour's sage wisdom is now available to everyone through his new book, Who's Talking Now? The Owl or the Crocodile, available at Amazon (here) or through your local bookseller. This delightful blend of neuroscience, psychology, and examples of couples engaged in therapy with his methods is a must read for anyone interested in improving their relationships and becoming a better clinician, partner, friend, or world citizen. The book is wonderfully illustrated by Elizabeth Boorstein (Seymour's daughter), and is very interesting, easy to read and digest, and will immediately give you helpful tools to understand yourself, your loved ones, and the world at large. Its baby blue pages are also beautiful and soothing to look at—a very charming addition to any home library, and a friendly companion as well.

"A light bulb went on." By Elizabeth Boorstein.
Seymour says "a light bulb went on" in 1992 when he heard Daniel Goleman speak about the "two brains": the primitive limbic system and more evolved cortical and neo-cortical systems. "He said that the limbic system impulses travel many times faster than the neocortical impulses. The result is that the limbic system hijacks the thought process because it initiates action based on its agenda before the neocortical system has a chance to respond wisely. I realized that many couples find themselves in destructive exchanges without really knowing how they got there because it all happens so quickly. I recognized that couples become confused when the limbic system's speed and lack of insight takes priority over the slower reasoning of the more mature cortical system."

To make these systems easily understandable, he represented them as animals. The "crocodile" of the limbic (reptilian) brain vied with the "owl" of the slower-thinking neocortex. The destructive elements in our relationships—anger, contempt, resentment, hostility, stonewalling—all come from the self-centered crocodile, when it is threatened and pushed into "fight, flight, or freeze" survival mode. Typically, the crocodile is linked to a "supersensitive neural network" forged in early childhood experiences. Those of us with difficult childhood experiences carry the memories of how our parents treated us as deep and open wounds that cause us to react disproportionately and defensively to anything that even vaguely reminds us of those early experiences. We fear being abandoned, engulfed, criticized, controlled, not seen, and so on.

Owl hugging crocodile. By Elizabeth Boorstein.
Almost inevitably, we choose relationships that match our early childhood experiences in some way. As Seymour says, "Often we choose our partners in order to set up and thereby repeat an unresolved problem from our childhood. We unknowingly ‘push' our partner into a parental mold that is modeled on earlier life patterns."

The goal is to understand, soothe and defuse our crocodiles, and get our owls talking to each other. "'The Wise Old Owl' is the part of the brain of a mature adult with a sense of meaning and purpose in life, moral principles, and the courage to live up to them." "When your crocodile is talking, your love will be clouded by scary, negative, and angry thoughts. When the owl is talking, the voice that comes through you will be caring, positive and sunny. Being clear about Who's Talking Now? The Owl or The Crocodile? allows you to disregard the impulsive, perhaps destructive nature of your crocodile and empower your ‘wise owl' on behalf of a happier relationship."

Who will talk now? By Elizabeth Boorstein.
Seymour's methods are deceptively simple and easy to understand, but I've found that it takes remarkable skill and wisdom to actually implement them. This does get easier in time though, as your owl gets stronger with practice. In the case examples in the book, Seymour typically gets an account of each partner's early childhood experience. What were mom and dad like? Did they love you? How did you know? What's key, of course, is the person's affect when conveying these details. The couples in the book have issues such as abandonment, criticism, neglect, and so forth. Seymour then gets an example of recent conflict, and asks each person, "Why would it bother you when X happened?" He asks for the immediate, even irrational, first response, which is the key to the crocodile's fear. For example:

Dr. B: Today let's look at how your crocodiles are trying to hurt or even destroy the closeness that you have now. The crocodile agenda is safety and survival, not love and closeness. I want you to see what your crocodile is feeling when your fights first begin. Try to say the first thing that comes to your mind after I ask the questions. Barry, why don't we start with you? Why would it bother you if Mary is lazy and doesn't do enough to make your home warm and comfortable? (Note: those were Barry's words.)
Barry: That means she doesn't care for me.
Dr. B: Why would it bother you if she doesn't care for you?
Barry: (...) It would feel like being all alone again. There would be no one I could depend on. His voice quivers, and then gets tight and angry.
Dr. B: Why would it bother you if you were all alone again?

(continued on page 2)

Please help me. By Elizabeth Boorstein.
Barry goes on to describe a childhood history of physical abuse and abandonment, leaving his supersensitive neural network raw and supercharged. In all of the examples, Seymour traces the crocodile fears to the fear of death. Being all alone, abandoned, out of control would mean death to the primitive survival brain. It usually reacts with anger and hostility. Bringing couples together means bringing the crocodiles to the surface and then learning how to soothe them and express feelings of love and compassion. Seymour is careful to say that once couples are relating healthily, there's a lot of room for humor, play, and even playful aggression that can connect and make life interesting. There's also continuous quality improvement, as he gives a personal example of his own crocodile coming out to play briefly, requiring him to marshall all his owl powers. Maybe Seymour and Sylvia can co-write a book about their 50+ years of successful marriage! He gives the people he works with great hope (and a reality check) when he says (at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that "After 50 years, we're still working at it!" I'd say their owls are communicating pretty well!

Seymour follows his case studies with a chapter of self-care tips, reminding us that caring for oneself and one's emotional and physical health is the foundation for healthy relationships. He encourages us to ask the "why would it bother you?" questions to "get behind the anger" to the fear underneath. Acknowledging our vulnerability allows us to grow, and allows our partners to understand and help us. Doing other good things for our bodies and minds (from yoga to lovingkindness meditation and other spiritual practices, to medication, if necessary) can help soothe and release trauma and provide the necessary conditions for personal growth.

Seymour summarizes five basic tools in his final chapter, "Healing Relationships/Healing the World":
1. Question Yourself (the "why would it bother you?" questions)
2. Make Friends (soothe and compliment your partner with warmth and sincerity)
3. Say Your Fear (tell your partner "I am worried or frightened about X"; name your emotions without blaming your partner, in other words)
4. Ask for Help, and

Owls - they apologize to each other. By Elizabeth Boorstein.
5. Repair the Rupture—repair the "inevitable crocodile errors we all make" by saying you're sorry.

Finally, Seymour provides a broader vision for conflict resolution in the world. "[H]ow different it would be if the world was full of people whose owls were in charge...I want my children and grandchildren, as well as your children and grandchildren to live in a better world than the one I see around me now. In my view, wars, poverty, hunger, fear, sickness and lack of adequate medical care, global financial depression, chaos, and the climate change which threaten our planet are all derived from crocodile actions. The limbic system that evolved to help us survive may be slowly killing us with the internal stress and external damage it produces..."

"Now is the time for as many of us as possible to do what we can to help humanity reach the tipping point that will lessen our crocodile behavior and greatly increase our caring owl behavior."

Hear Hear! I encourage everyone to buy and read Seymour's book—it will make your owl wiser, and your relationships more loving and secure. And it might even help make the world a better place. It's about time that we feed the owls.

Part I of "Hot Tips for Relationship Success" http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-pacific-heart/201103/hot-...

Footnote:  I asked Seymour why he didn't include a gay or lesbian couple in his book.  He says it's because while he's worked with many gay individuals, he hasn't worked with a gay couple.  But, as he says, "it would be exactly the same.  The crocodile gets scared of dying—it doesn't matter who's doing the threat."


©  2012 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  Subscribe by RSS above.  Sign up for a quarterly e-newsletter to be the first to find out about my upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha:  Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, at www.RaviChandraMD.com.  Facebook page: SanghaFrancisco-The Pacific Heart. Twitter @going2peace. Thanks for your shares on Facebook, etc.!  All quotes from his book are © Seymour Boorstein, M.D., and illustrations are by Elizabeth Boorstein. Thanks to Michael Boorstein for help with providing illustrations.

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Odyssey of the Owl. By Elizabeth Boorstein.

Ravi Chandra, M.D., F.A.P.A. is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco, California.

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