Monthly Archive: October 2017

Our fickle memory


True story: a man and his fiancé were going out for the evening.  As it happened, his car was like one that was driven by a man who’d just raped a woman.  He also looked a little like the aggressor.  The police spotted his car and picked him up.  The he was put in a line-up, and the victim noted that he looked “like” the perpetrator.

That was enough for the police and he was charged.  By the time the trial came along 6 months later, the victim was now saying he “was” the same guy.  This man was convicted and sent to jail. He was a fighter and managed to convince an investigative reporter to take up his story – and that reporter found the real criminal.

You might be thinking: Whew! I’m so glad he got off and was completely exonerated.  Well, he did and he was, but he couldn’t let the injustice go. It cost him his job, his fiancé and all his savings. He died in his 30’s of a stress-related heart attack.

This story was told by Elizabeth Loftus, a scientist who studies memory.  Ms. Loftus gives more examples on how our memories are faulty.  More to the point, our memories are most faulty when we are in a stressful situation, like that female victim was. She goes on to show how politicians, ad agencies, and the like, use this fact to manipulate others. What I’d like to focus on, instead, is how we can manipulate ourselves with false memories.

I have a story about my brother and father. My brother has a different story. My sister, who wasn’t actually present but heard about the incident has yet a different one.  Which is true? From my perspective, I was attempting to save a situation; my brother was trying to escape it, and my sister may have been trying to support my brother and father.  We were seeing the event from quite different perspectives, and were focused on different things.  We were all excited and even anxious, and that no doubt leant weight to how we saw it.

Which of the stories is true?  I don’t know. I believe that parts of what I remember are true and objective; so does my brother.

That’s one of my childhood stories.  Here’s another one: As a child, I wanted to get my mother a birthday gift and didn’t have any money.  It was early summer, the lilacs were coming into bloom, and I saw an opportunity.  I visited every yard in my neighborhood and cut a few lilac stems from each yard.  Then I went door to door selling back these lilacs.   At the time, I thought this idea was brilliant (and a little cheeky – my excuse being I was a kid), and I made enough to buy Mom her gift.  I like that memory, and remember it whenever I feel stumped.

I have other childhood memories that aren’t as pleasant, and that can bring up feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.  But if I can change the perspective, even a little, those stories cease to trouble me and get in my way.

Part of who we are, are our stories. Our stories provide a powerful context for how we see ourselves.  So it makes sense that if we change that context, we also change who we are. For instance, let’s say a child was hit by a stranger, and managed to crawl into something the stranger couldn’t reach.  If that child remembered the event with the man as huge and all-powerful, and him – the boy – as small and powerless, that will impact him and his life in one way.  If instead he remembered the event as the man being huge and brutish, and him – the boy – as smart and resourceful, that will impact in a completely different way.

Same story.  Which is true?

We all have childhood stories.  Some are empowering and some aren’t.  We have the power to change our perspective on the disempowering stories, and thereby improve our lives.

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.

Toni Morrisson, Song of Solomon


Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .

Toxic? Moi?



I was inspired to write this from an article I read in Psychology Today (June, 2017) called Poison People. It’s a topic that interests many – being with someone we believe is poisonous is at minimum uncomfortable, and can be difficult. I don’t think anyone’s afraid of being physically hurt by a toxic person, but are afraid of being damaged socially or emotionally.

Poisonous, or toxic, behavior is something we see more and more in the workplace. It can be from narcissism or callousness, but more often it’s from the kind of environment everyone’s in. That environment is one where productivity is the only benchmark of success. This kind of atmosphere nurtures uncertainty and mistrust, divides people and forces everyone to hide behind the psychological armoring of manipulation and turf-protection.

I invite you to read the article.  What interested me as I read it is that all of us – that’s right, you and me – can be – and will probably end up being – toxic if immersed in a toxic environment for very long.

How can we not? If we know that nothing anyone says is straight up, and that the only thing that matters is who gets noticed first, how long will it be before nobody is motivated by anything but fear of not making it, and “making it” will include others not making it.

In today’s work environment, where more and more of us are treading with our noses just above the water line (or not anymore, it just seems that way), this toxic environment can feel like it’s everywhere.  I’ve been to so many networking events lately where there’s this mad rush to hand out cards and spill forth what we do, with little or no interest in what the person we are talking to does or cares about.

Too many of us are scared.  And when we’re scared, we’re in stress response.  When we’re in stress response, it’s actually impossible for us to be present and available for others. And that’s when We – you and I – become toxic.

What can we do individually to clear out the toxin? At least 3 things:

  1. Self-cleaning: it always begins with us. If we’re stressed and/or miserable, then we’re also likely heading in that direction.  And before we can do anything about our surroundings and others, we need to deal with whatever is making us miserable first.  This might mean changing jobs, or discovering what the stress is all about and addressing it.  It might mean seeking help, or joining a self-help group.  Whatever your choice, begin it, because without that first step, nothing else follows.
  2. Be the example. If you find yourself in a toxic environment, and in a position of leadership, then you’re in a great place. Because you have the power to start changing things. It may be that you’ll eventually need to relocate or find another job, but in the meantime, you can become a ray of hope for others. And, what you’ll learn is never lost, and can help you find a better job in a non-toxic place next time.
  3. Engage your empathy. We are all in this together!  If you’ve read this far, then you know what I mean.  Even the worst offender deserves our empathy and understanding (which doesn’t mean caving in and going along with toxicity).

I want, more than anything, to live in a productive world where the people around me are happy and feel fulfilled.  I believe that most of us want that.  And sometimes this means first taking stock of our own part in what we see as the problem.


Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .

When it looks like Checkmate, is there another way?

There’s a wonderful description and discussion, written by Glen McDonald, of Friedrich Retzsch’s painting The Chess Players, that is – sadly – published on a non-public website, and is therefore not accessible.

I’ve included an image of this famous painting.


The Chess Players, also commonly called Checkmate,
by Friederich August Moritz Retzsch (1779-1857)

On the board, the white figures represent the virtues of a righteous life, the black figures symbolize temptations. The black side is definitely winning, and is being played by Mephistopheles, or Satan. The white is played by the young man.  He sits in despair, his pieces surrounded and his queen captured.

Retzsch’s inspiration came from Goethe’s Faust. It’s the story of a young doctor who makes a deal with Satan in exchange for adventure. The young man is just at the point of realizing the true cost of his decision.

Notice the details: the chessboard sits on the top slab of a tomb, there’s a large deadly-looking spider crawling onto the board, the angel behind them is looking sad and resigned at the young man.  All is lost.

In the 1800’s, this painting captured the imagination of Rev. R.R. Harrison of Virginia, and he hosted a dinner party with Checkmate as the star player. It was for the benefit of members of a local Chess club. One of the guests was a famous Chess Player – Paul Morphy. Harrison decided to recreate the positions of all the pieces. Harrison thought the devil had won, but Morphy thought differently.

Morphy took on the remaining white pieces, and by the end of the evening, he’d beaten all the other guests, who had taken Satan’s black pieces.

You may find yourself in a similar position – feeling hopeless and defeated, unable to see any light at the end of the tunnel.  You may have made some big mistakes, and feel you sold your soul to the devil. But all is not lost!

If you take the time to find the master inside you, the game isn’t over.

In the video below, the narrator talks of the Lakota story and their desperate circumstances. Comparing their situation to that of the young man in the painting – desperate, feeling hopeless, maneuvered and forced into the situation they’re in by others – it would require an incredible kind of person to climb out of that morass.

And yet, some have. Truly incredible people.

Now I’d love to hear from you about your own experiences, knowledge, opinions.  In the comments below, share one thing that you experienced as a mirror moment that changed your day, or even your life.

This newsletter is in three parts: the first part is my contribution; the second is a video I’ve found that relates to the topic in part 1; the third is a quote. I hope you enjoy the richness this brings to the topic of the week with all three parts.

America’s Native Prisoners of War

Quote of the Week
When things go wrong, don’t go with them.
― Elvis Presley

At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us. I offer both one-on-one consultations and coaching packages.  For more information, visit my website or contact me directly at

Addictive substances – a good coping strategy?

Addictive substances

If you’ve ever been addicted to a substance – coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, prescription or recreational drugs, for instance – you know how you grow to depend on that substance whenever you’re feeling anxious.

It’s a way of coping with difficult feelings – such as anxiety.  We have other ways of coping – some better than others, and addiction is one strategy that can have serious consequences.

I happened across an article by Dr. Joseph Troncale that specifically addresses the connection between drugs or alcohol and anxiety. He talks about how self-medicating with drugs or alcohol in order to calm down ends up generating more anxiety, culminating in a vicious downward spiral: we feel stressed, and medicate this feeling with drugs, which can often lead to feeling more stressed, leading to more drugs to dull that increased anxiety. In his words “This cycle of self-medication and rebound anxiety digs a deeper and deeper hole for the addicted person making treatment and breaking this downward spiral harder and harder as time goes by”.

Using drugs or any addictive substance or behavior generates a spiking pattern, where we swing between feeling high and feeling crappy, with no in-between.  In the normal pattern in a day, we go through a more gentle wave of experience: we notice something, decide to engage with it, engage with it, then withdraw when we notice something new.  The in-between is the connection and the gradual withdrawal.  In the spiking pattern, there is no connection or gradual withdrawal – it’s either all on or all off.

Using an addictive substance or activity lets us bypass any discomfort of contact or withdrawal, we bypass anything beyond the initial sensation, spiking instead to a high provided by the drug. Once the effect of the drug wears off, that feeling we’ve been avoiding – like anxiety – resurfaces and we spike to a low, and we avoid that feeling by engaging instead with the addiction.  The anxiety doesn’t actually go away, but remains suppressed until we stop the addiction cycle.

There are a few ways of stopping the cycle. Dr. Troncale prefers the monitored gradual withdrawal approach. Twelve-step programs offer a different approach that work for many people. A third approach is finding a spiritual path that inspires and supports you. What any one person chooses and finds works for them may not work for the next person.

The important thing is to know what is happening so that you can make an informed decision about how you want to live.


Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .