ERP 213: How Shame and Grandiosity Relate to Self-Esteem, an Interview with Terry Real [transcript]

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 213, “How shame and grandiosity relate to self-esteem”, an interview with Terry Real.

Before we get started, I wanna take a moment and just ground and center into the intention for today’s episode. Now, I’m gonna be setting the intention for the Empowered Relationship Podcast, but I wanna invite you to center into your intention, as you’re navigating relationship, and whatever phase or form or circumstances you are in in this moment… Just to touch in on that, and give validation, and honor to that.

The Empowered Relationship Podcast is intended to support you in feeling supported as you navigate long-term intimacy, and the goal being as we navigate relationship, we’re cultivating the quality of that connection, the security, the bond, the closeness, the happiness, the playfulness, the intimacy – all of it. And as we do so, we may be confronted with our own triggers, challenges along the way, or perhaps our partner’s challenges and triggers. How we negotiate these difficulties is critical to the success of the relationship.

So often on these interviews and episodes I invite people to turn towards, in the interest of growth; that there’s so much to be learned, and I’m supporting you and providing tips, tools, principles to consider… Because we wanna do this with health, with self-care, but again, also learning how to up-level the quality of our connection with our significant other, as well as our own personal growth.

If you would like access to today’s show notes, you can visit, click on Podcast, and you can find today’s episode – again, which is 213, “How shame and grandiosity relate to self-esteem”, an interview with Terry Real. Let’s get started in today’s interview.


Dr. Jessica Higgins: I am pleased to be sharing Terry Real with you, as he is incredibly knowledgeable, skilled and has developed himself as a professional in this field for so long. He trains other therapists, and has just so much to offer, so I am confident that you’ll get a lot out of today’s interview.

Terry Real is a nationally recognized family therapist and author. Particularly known for his groundbreaking work on men, his work on gender and couples. He published the national bestseller: I Don’t Want To Talk About It, the first book written on the topic of male depression. He has been in private practice for thirty years and he is the Founder of The Relational Life Institute, where he teaches therapist trainings and workshops for couples.

Terry, thank you so much for joining us today.

Terry Real: It’s a pleasure, thank you for having me.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: It’s a huge honor to have your voice on this show. I know you offer trainings to other clinicians, and you’re considered one of the major contributors to the field of intimacy and relationship, so it’s a gift to have your voice on the show.

Terry Real: Thank you for that.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah, and we are looking at something you talk a lot about, around shame, grandiosity and healthy self-esteem… But before we do that, I imagine a lot of listeners are familiar with you, but perhaps some are not. I know you’ve been in the field for — is it 30 years?

Terry Real: At least… But [unintelligible 00:04:54.16]

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah… But were you always interested in the couples, in relationship, or was there something that–

Terry Real: Oh, no… No, I slid into it. In 1997 I published a book called “I don’t wanna talk about it. Overcoming the secret legacy of male depression.” It was the first book that had ever been written about male depression. Before that book, depression was seen as a woman’s disease. I’m very proud of putting male depression on the map. I say that it’s a hidden epidemic, in that most men will not reach out for help, and many people miss the depression. Men express depression differently than women do. Many men are exactly the same, but many more – you don’t see the overt signs of the depression. I call it “master covert depression.” What you see are the things the guy is doing to escape the depression, like drinking, drugging, womanizing, domestic violence. Now, I’m not saying that all men who engage in these behaviors have a core of depression, but I am saying that many do… And it is not being dealt with.

I then in the book took that depression and related it to the way that we raise boys in our culture. The way that we raise boys in our culture is through trauma. The imposition of the masculine code on sensitive, big-hearted little boys – it is just that, an imposition. If you step away from the code, you are punished.

So I speak about what I call the normal traumatization of boys in our culture, and the consequences of that in adulthood. The way we “traditionally” is changing, but it’s not changed nearly as much as we’d like to think it has. The way we turn boys into men in our culture is by disconnecting them. We disconnect them from their feelings, we disconnect them from vulnerability, we disconnect them from others – we call that learning to be independent… And what I say in “I don’t wanna talk about it” is the cost of disconnection in boyhood is (guess what?) disconnection as an adult.

The wound for girls, if you look at the literature on women’s development, which I’m sure of course you have – but the wound for girls comes about the age of adolescence, 11-13; it’s the loss of voice, it’s the over-accommodation, what the great Carol Gilligan called “the tyranny of the nice and kind.” Girls are disempowered, and the healing for many women is move them into loving empowerment.

The wound for boys, which occurs much earlier (3-5) is almost preverbal. The wound for boys is not about disempowerment – many boys are overtly empowered – it’s about disconnection. And the healing move in my work with men is reconnecting them… Reconnecting them to their feelings, to their own vulnerabilities, and to the people around them who are trying to get through.

Anyway, the book was a big hit, it was a national best-seller – there are a lot of depressed men around – and I started getting calls from around the country, because there are a lot of clinical stories in the book, the actual renderings of the therapy. Is there anybody in Kansas, or Santa Barbara, or wherever that does this work? And I would refer people as best I could. But after a year or so the light dawned, and I began to say “Look, if you’re crazy enough and you have the resources, come to Boston and I’ll work with you.” These are all couples on the brink of divorce that no one else has been able to help.

What evolved was what I called a two-day relational intervention, and it’s still what I do; I do it by video now, of course, but it’s still most of what I do clinically. People spend two days with me, and at the end of the two days we decide – the three of us – that you’re back on track or you’re getting a divorce; this is the last thought.

What I’ve found is that I had a really good batting average with these extreme cases… And the second thing I found was that I was breaking virtually all the rules I had learned as  a couples therapist. For example, in the work that I do – I call it relational life therapy – I’ve trained thousands of therapists to do this now… But in the work we do, we take sides. And when there’s a power imbalance, we side with the disempowered one. We throw our weight behind that person. Not all problems are 50/50. Sometimes you find yourself with a very difficult human being.

This was feminist critique of family therapy and couples therapy, you don’t ask an abused wife what was her contribution to the choreography between — that’s grotesque. The woman is a victim, period. The guy is a perpetrator, period. And so I take sides, I’m not neutral. And I don’t hide – and all of our therapists don’t hide – behind the  mask of professionalism. We’re human beings with the people that we work with. I talk about my marriage, I talk about fights I have with Melinda… So it’s very different work.

And then out of this work with couples, because I have been teaching family therapy for decades, I pulled back and asked myself “How the hell is this working?” And with help from friends – we can talk about that – this new method called relational life therapy was created. I began seeing couples that nobody else could help… And then out of that, I wrote a book called The New Rules of Marriage, in which I essentially say that — you know, one of the great stories of the 20th century is the changing role of women. And have men changed? Not so much. So women across the board are carrying marital dissatisfaction.

I don’t’ know how it is for you, Jessica, but I’m dealing with couples in extremis. Couples on marital desk door. I get the woman to go in the waiting room, I talk to the guy, and the guy says to me “You know, Terry, things aren’t really bad around here. If you could just kind of get her, you know, off my back, I think we’d be okay.” This guy is deluded.

The open secret in our field, I believe, is that men by and large are not that dissatisfied with their marriages. Men are unhappy that the women are so unhappy with them. And women are unhappy because they want more emotional intimacy than we raise boys and men to deliver, traditionally. There’s a disjuncture between the code of masculinity and–

I say to the guy, I say “Harry, you’re a statistic, man. There are too many of you being dragged into offices just like mine. We can’t blame all of your mothers. There’s something collective going on.” And what it is is simply this – women have radically changed, and men so far have not. That’s not a criticism of men, it’s just a statement of fact. And women want more emotional intimacy than we raise men to be skilled enough to deliver. Plus, the essence of masculinity is invulnerability. The more invulnerable you are, the more masculine you are. The more vulnerable you are, the more girly you are.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: By society’s terms.

Terry Real: Yes, the traditional setup. And the fly in the ointment is  you can’t be intimate and invulnerable at the same time. We human beings connect through our vulnerabilities. So one of the things I say is that leading men and women into increased intimacy, which is what I do every day – they’re synonymous with leading them out of traditional gender roles and avid patriarchy. We have to move into new territory. Men have to open their hearts, and women need to find a loving (not shrill), firm voice. Women need to be able to speak, and men need to be able to listen.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, I love the articulation of this. I do talk about these concepts as well, in the sense of — well, I guess I’m curious; I wanna just pause. When you’re talking about the couples that you see, and the dynamics, you’re talking about shame or this disempowerment, or the grandiosity… Do you find the dynamics are two categories, or do you find them more predominant that the man is maybe more withdrawn, or is turning away, and maybe in the covert depression strategies, and that the woman is more pursuing? Is that typically what you see? Or do you see — you also mentioned where the man is maybe in a more power position, maybe even in that grandiosity, and maybe is behaving in ways that might be destructive.

Terry Real: Well, the great couples therapist Alan Bader used to say there are only two couples in the world – there are distancing couples and fighting couples. And you just described two different kinds of guys – a love-avoidant passive-aggressive withholding guy, and overtly grandiose, aggressive, violating guy.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Is that representative in your work?

Terry Real: Very much so. Very much so, I see both. And women drag both into seeing me. They both have different treatments. The grandiose guy has to wake up and come down.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Terry, I know what you’re meaning, but can we pause? Will you be able to round out where you’re coming from as you refer to shame and as you refer to grandiosity? Because I just would love for people to have that reference with you.

Terry Real: Right, let’s define what we’re talking about. Healthy self-esteem comes from the inside out. You have worth and you have dignity because you’re a human being and you’re on this planet. Period, end of story. And your essential worth as a human being, or essential dignity as a human being cannot be added to or subtracted from, it doesn’t have to be earned, it can’t be unearned… You can be a serial killer, you can be Mahatma Gandhi, and you put them in an emergency room and it’s part of our Western ethics that whoever needs a treatment first, gets it. You don’t do it based on standing, or status, or moral… A human being is a human being; what do you need? And it’s the better work of democracy. One man, one vote. One woman, one vote. So we’re all equal.

The healthy self-esteem is same as. Neither better, nor worse than anybody else. You’re not inferior, you’re not superior. That’s  a lie. But our culture runs on unhealthy self-esteem. There are 3 forms of outside-in self-esteem, pseudo-self-esteem, which our whole culture runs by, and which is most people’s setup.

The first is performance-based esteem. “I have worth because of what I can do. I can hit a homer, I can give my wife an orgasm. I can close this deal.” And performance-based esteem is really big for men.

The second is other [unintelligible 00:17:31.00] “I have worth because you think I do. I supplement my shaky sense of self-esteem with your warm regard for me, and then I feel better.” Pushed to extremes, that becomes love addiction, and that’s of course more common for women.

And then the third form of unhealthy self-esteem is outside-in self-esteem, instead of inside-out. It’s attribute-based esteem. “I have worth because of what I have. I have big muscles, I have a kid at Harvard, I have a trophy wife. I have a big bank account.” And the whole advertising industry is based on attribute bases. You know, “Buy this car and be a person of distinction.”  You’re a person of distinction with or without the car, relax.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: [laughs] Yes. I want that to be the clause at the bottom.

Terry Real: Yeah. So there’s a lot of unhealthy self-esteem, and the way that it plays out between people is you’re either inferior, you feel less than, inadequate, like there’s something wrong or defective about you – that’s shame – or you feel superior. You’re looking down your nose to somebody; they’re not as good as you. You are either morally or intellectually or whatever else superior to them. It’s like looking at somebody through the wrong end of the telescope. They’re only an inch-and-a-half big. They have a little squeaky voice, and you don’t really give a damn about what their problem is. That’s grandiosity. Better than/less than. Inferiority/superiority. They’re both lies. You cannot be less than another human being fundamentally, you cannot be better than another human.

Now, look, I’m not a Marxist and I’m not talking about checking your brain at the door. What I say is you kill it on the stock market on Tuesday? I want you to feel great. You lose it all on Thursday, I want you to feel horrible. These are appropriate feelings. But there’s a firewall between these feelings and your worth as a human being. You’re not better than on Tuesday, or less than on Thursday. That doesn’t reach down that far into your core.

Or to say it differently, you can be a tennis player and some guy keeps beating the snot out of you, and you double-down, get a lot of lessons, work really hard, and six months later you beat the snot out of him. You are a better tennis player; congratulations. You worked hard, you earned it. Good. Glory in it. You are not a better person.

So you don’t go down and you don’t go up when you’re in what I go full relational recovery. And I can talk to people about particular practices and exercises to intervene when you’re down, and intervene when you’re up, and pull yourselves into health, into health, into same-as, neither shameful, nor grandiose, inferior or superior. You’re just a human being like the rest of us.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes… I love this. I love the firewall. That analogy is so brilliant, because I think so many times people are confronted with these feelings, and perhaps like you’re describing, struggle with that healthy sense of esteem, where their past experiences haven’t reinforced that or given them the experience of that… And so it runs so, so deep.

I’m really curious what you find that helps people start to have a different perspective or paradigm as you’re describing this. As you mentioned, women are typically the biggest initiators of divorce because of the longing for the emotional intimacy… And sometimes when they can’t access their husband per se, and will fill in the blank based on their fears… “He’s not emotionally available, and maybe he’s behaving in those ways, but he doesn’t have emotions, and he doesn’t care”, all of these things that fuel the reaction… But it’s hard to shift to “Oh, he actually does have a capacity, it’s just perhaps he hasn’t been able to access it”, or like you said, he  hasn’t had as much support, or playing time, and being able to develop this emotional connection with himself and a healthy esteem.

Or conversely, with the man in this situation – being able to turn towards that as valuable when culture has said being vulnerable and accessing emotions is weakness. So how do you get people to start to contemplate this differently?

Terry Real: Well, I want men to wake up. I think that it’s time for men and women to join together, to understand that patriarchy does great damage to both sexes, and we’re both victims of patriarchy, and we both need to bust out of the strait jackets we’ve been put in, and become whole human beings. And for women, that often means gathering their strengths, and for men it means moving into vulnerability.

But you have to deconstruct traditional masculinity to help a guy do that. You have to flat out say to him – and I’m talking as a therapist or a friend, not the wife… You have to say to them “Look, it’s not unmanly to cry, it’s not unmanly.” There’s a beautiful TED talk that somebody gave, and it just turned the whole thing around; it’s only about five minutes, but it’s like “Do you have the balls to open your heart? Are you courageous enough to share your feelings?” And it just kind of flipped it. “Are you courageous enough to be vulnerable?” That’s what men need. We need the courage to break out of the traditional role and open up our hearts to our partners and our   kids to ourselves.

Let’s go back to self-esteem for a moment. Self-esteem is a relationship. I’m a relationship coach, and self-esteem is a relationship just like your marriage is a relationship; it’s about the relationship between you and you. And you can work on your relationship to yourself, just like you can work on an external relationship. Shame is about — I wrote this, and I don’t wanna talk about it… If I held a psychic stethoscope up to the psyche of a depressed man – and I will say this about anybody in a shame state, because depression really is basically a shame state… If you hold the stethoscope up to what’s going on, you’ll hear one part of him beating up another part of him, viciously. If you read the journals of depressed men, that’s what they write. There’s an endless self-emulating violence that goes on.

Now, I have a saying – we tend to hold ourselves the way we were held. Self-esteem means that you hold yourself in warm regard, even though you’re imperfect and you screw up. Let me say that again – self-esteem is holding yourself warmly and tenderly, even in the face of your imperfections. And there’s a mantra… So much of what I’m saying today comes from one of my mentors, a woman named Pia Mellody. There’s a saying that Pia taught me, that I’m gonna download to all of your listeners today. It sounds a little Stuart Smalley, I know, but [unintelligible 00:25:44.11] The saying is this “I am enough, and I matter.” Those are the two aspects of self-esteem: I am enough and I matter. Abundance and connection. I am enough and I matter, despite my imperfections. Or you can customize it, “I’m enough and I matter, despite the fact that I just blew it and yelled at my kid. I’m enough and I matter despite the fact that I just got laid off from my job. I’m enough and I matter, despite…”

You feel bad about bad behavior. I want  you to feel bad about bad behavior. That’s remorse, that’s guilt, that’s good. But it stops with an ad hominem attack; same thing as a firewall. I behave badly, I feel bad about my bad behavior; I’m a good human being, I feel good about myself, even though I’m flawed. And  you have to do both at the same time.

If you don’t feel bad about the bad behavior, you’re grandiose. People who are superior don’t feel all that bad about their bad behavior. What’s so bad about it? If you feel bad about your bad behavior and it bleeds into you’re a big shit as a human being, that’s shame. Then it’s gone too far. So you feel proportionately bad about your bad behavior, and at the same time you regard  yourself with warmth and tenderness. Now, can I give you an exercise?

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Mm-hm.

Terry Real: When someone’s playing with a lot of shame messages, when you’re got a big inner critic and there’s a lot of negative self-talk, I’m gonna give you a muscle to build… And you have to build it, you have to do it. This is not thinking about it, this is doing it. This is intervening in the moment, when it’s actually happening. And it’s just like building any other muscle – you go to the gym, you work out.

The first time you’re trying to intervene on your own shame messages, they’re gonna laugh to you. By the 400th time you do it, they’re gonna pipe down. So here’s how it goes –  you listen to that inner critic part of you… We don’t have time to get into all this, but it’s really just the child part of you that internalized all this. Just an immature part of you that’s harsh. You don’t meet harshness with harshness. Never. You meet harshness with loving firmness. And you say to this immature part of you that’s so nasty and so harsh, “Listen, pipe down. Okay, I get it that you’re upset. You’re pointing out things that maybe I should see about myself, but not this way.”

Jessica, I have a saying — at 69, I have a rule. If it’s not kind, I’m not interested. So you say to this voice “You’re not being kind.” One thing that I say to people is “You wouldn’t put up with it if somebody outside of you talked to you this way… But because it’s you talking to you that way, you think you have to be passive about it.” Lean into that little person and say “You know what – I got the message… You need to be quiet right now.” That’s step one.

Then once that voice is a little quieter, step two is actively summoning up the energy and tenderness and care. Loving kindness, and giving that to yourself. “Oh, my god. I just got laid off. And not only did I get laid off, but I got laid off because I [unintelligible 00:29:23.04] my mouth off at my boss. I can’t tell you how bad– okay, fine.” There’s some things to learn about that, but right now you’re being really mean to me. You need to just be quiet for a few minutes. And then close your eyes, breathe… Breath is our friend. Do a little meditating and find some loving energy. Think of one of your kids, think of your pet dog, whatever it is. Summon up some loving energy and give it to yourself. Literally, bestow it to yourself.

So it’s a two-step process – you block the negative and you create the positive. Can I tell you a story that illustrates this?

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, please.

Terry Real: This is a story I tell a lot, it’s from my own life. I was doing a conference for therapists – about 300 therapists – and I was signing/autographing books at the end of the day… And by the way, I do want everybody to come to my website, There’s so much there. Just google my name and you’ll get there. Anyway, I was signing books, and one of my managers, a guy who’s responsible for getting me at the airport said “Oh my god, Terry, you’re gonna be late for your plane.” And I started gathering all my things… And okay, I get on, I make the plane, kick off my shoes, I got a nice glass of Chardonnay, everything is cool, it was a great day, I loved it… And I notice this cold, wet feeling on my chest. And when I look down, the whole of my shirt was black. I had been signing with a [unintelligible 00:31:03.07]

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Oh, no…

Terry Real: Now look, I have a tendency to depression; I write about that extensively… And I have ADD. And I look down at that splash and that little inner critic of mine started going haywire. “I can’t believe it, you always do this kind of thing.” And I do. I’m ADD. I bump things, I lose things, I break things, I’m clumsy… This stuff happens to you when you have ADD; no matter how you try, to some degree it happens. Anyway, “You’ll never do this, you’ll always do that etc.” Now, that could have triggered years ago a five-day depression in me. That violence that violence that I was leveling against myself, and that “You’re such a loser!” I would have bought it and gone down.

On this day, I turned to that inner critic part of me, who’s just a little boy, and I said to him “Listen, honey. Let me tell you something. The same ADD brain that ruined this shirt is the brain that wrote those books that were being autographed. So why don’t you pipe down?” And he did. And I sat down, and I had my Chardonnay, I look at that shirt, and I said “Cost to doing business.” You know, I’m a therapist; what do I pay?  Rent and Kleenex. I can do [unintelligible 00:32:35.10] and that was the end of it. What might have been a five-day bloodbath was done in ten minutes. That’s because I’ve done this work of self-esteem.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Well, that’s a beautiful story. And if I can just ask a couple questions, if it resonates with what you’re describing… As I listen to you, it’s almost as if you’re protecting your sense of self, and the essence, and you mattering, that firewall… And that part of you, the inner critic, maybe even the younger boy, and the shame and the negative, and asking it to pipe down… That if you didn’t have that firewall, that that shame voice, that inner critic could be annihilating; it could go so deep that it feels — I mean, this is where people get suicidal.

Terry Real: You’re right. And look, I’ve been there in my day; I haven’t been actively suicidal, but I’ve struggled with severe depression… And that’s why I wrote the book. And severe depression is basically an extraordinarily violent self-attack. So we have to learn. But look, Jessica, I grew up in a violent family, and we tend to hold ourselves the way we were held. I grew up in a violent family, and I was attacked, and I was made to feel ashamed, I was made to feel small, and worthless, and unlovable. So that’s a well-worn neurological track that I can go down if I don’t intervene. But doing 30 years of practice work —

You know, I wanna say something to the listeners. For those of you out there who don’t like yourselves very much, who are prone to negative self-talk like this, here’s what I wanna tell you… I used to be you. I’ve spent most of my life loathing myself. I’ve spent most of my life bouncing back and forth between inferiority and superiority, back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth. I did not like being alone in my skin. It was not fun to be there. And what I wanna tell you is I’m no longer there. I am happy inside my skin, and I earned that; nobody gave that to me. You can earn it just as easily if you do the work.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Thank you for sharing that. So important to know, and to have somebody encourage that path of transformation… Because what I’m feeling from you, Terry, is that as you’ve developed this ability to hold yourself in high regard, and that you matter, even in the face of a mishap, as you were saying, that you’re in relationship with yourself, and that you exist, and that your worthiness is not dependent on the performance, the attributes or the validation… And that helps you stay in essence, and living, and creating. When we allow that shame voice to go so deep, it gets depleted, and you get this destructive feeling; it squashes down that life for us.

Terry Real: Yes, you pay for this with your life. The price tag is your life, and your sense of aliveness.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: And then conversely, as it relates to grandiosity, it sounds as though you’re saying that that takes us out of relationship with others because we’re promoting ourselves, or thinking of ourselves as better… Which probably also maybe comes from some inadequacy, or even a sense of falsehood. Like you said, false ego, or false esteem.

Terry Real: Yeah. Well, you know what’s interesting – they’ve done research on narcissists, and it’s a very common belief. I like to say there are two groups that believe that underneath every narcissistic grandiose person there’s a  hurt little boy or girl… And if you just get to that little boy or girl, that shame core, that grandiosity is this sense against  shame… And if you go with the shame and love them up, the grandiosity will go away. There are two groups who believe that – therapists and codependents… And they’re wrong. It doesn’t go like that. You have to deal with the grandiosity per se. You have to stand up to a bully. You have to set limits on somebody who’s selfish and entitled, and THEN you can get at the underlying vulnerabilities. But one of the things that’s really different about what the way I work in traditional therapy is we deal with grandiosity straight up, and we’re lovingly-confrontational about what you’re doing in that grandiosity that is getting you into trouble.

George Vaillant, a great psychiatrist here in Boston, once said – back in the day when people smoked in public… I’m dating myself, but anyway, he said there are two kinds of people in the world – there’s a guy who walks into an elevator, gets claustrophobic and turns green. There’s a guy who walks into an elevator, lights up a big, fat [unintelligible 00:38:23.16] and everybody around them turns green. That’s the difference between shame and grandiosity. Implosion, explosion.

If you’re in a state of grandiosity, you may not even be in pain. [unintelligible 00:38:36.06] “This is a Havana cigar, man. This is a 30-dollar — are you kidding me?” He doesn’t get it. And of course, that’s what women are always saying about men, “They don’t get it.” And grandiosity impairs judgment. Think about mania and bipolar disorder. Mania is like [unintelligible 00:38:58.21] on grandiosity. Being drunk is a state of grandiosity. Being high, being intoxicated are portals into grandiosity. Bigger than life.

Grandiosity impairs judgment in two ways – it blunts your empathy, like the guy with the cigar in the elevator, and it blunts your capacity to judge negative consequences. Again, we have to lock men up, because they think they can fly, and stuff. Adolescent boys are naturally grandiose, and my wife Melinda has a saying, “Every mother with a son between the age of 18 and 26 has one job. Keep them alive.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: [laughs] Right.

Terry Real: And that’s because they make such bad judgment, because adolescent boys are naturally grandiose. It’s a period they go through… Hopefully, it’s just a period they go through. So grandiosity impairs judgment. The people who are grandiose may not be in pain so much. The people around them are in pain, and that’s why when I work, I like to work with couples and even families, rather than work with individuals… Because the grandiose person has no idea how offensive he/she is being. Or if they do, it’s justified. “Or, or, or, or. Yes, but… Yes, but… Yes, but…” They don’t really feel remorse as deeply as they need to.

It’s my work as a therapist in dealing with a grandiose man or woman to bring them into remorse, to bring them into healthy guilt about what they’re doing. Can I tell you a story?

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, please. Yes.

Terry Real: Well, this is a guy – we’ll call him Harry – and it starts off with a couple. She brought a man, and it’s a typical he said/she said. He says that the problem is that she’s a ditz. She’s a flake. And her problem with him is that he’s a brute. By now already I’m thinking “Are these equal? Is this 50/50, if it’s true?”

So I turn to him. The first thing we do in my work is get specific. “Give me details. So give me three examples of her being a ditz, Harry.” “Well, she’s often late, she never apologizes. If you give her a list of five things, she’ll come home with two.” Okay. “Give me an example, Mrs. Shirley (that’s what we’ll call her) of Harry being a brute.” This is all a true story. She says, “Well, in the last two weeks he called me the c-word, he stood in the door and physically barred me from leaving, and he spit on my windshield.” Okay, that’s all grandiosity.

I look at him. I always take the worst example, and I say “Harry, you spit on her windshield?” He goes, “Yeah, but you should have heard what she was saying. I’m not gonna put up with that crap.” And I look at him. Beat, beat, beat. Most therapists talk too much. I just let it sit there. And then I say to him, “I don’t know, I’ve just met you, but it occurs to me you don’t know the difference between standing up for yourself and brutalizing somebody.” That rocked him.

Then I went to the next thing we do in this relational life therapy – once we get the dysfunction, we take it back to childhood. “Where did you learn this?” So I say to him, “Harry, who was the angry one in your family growing up?” “My dad.” “Tell me about it.” “Oh, he was awful. He was a drunk. He’d come home… God help you if you got in his way.” “Where was your mother?” “She was at work, and then she was a doormat anyway. In fact, I’m the one that protected my little sister.” “Oh, yeah? What did you do?” “I locked her in the basement before dad would get home. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was a finished basement. She had coloring books, and videos, and shit like that… But I kept her out of harm’s way.” I say to him, “Harry, how old was she?” “Three.” “How old were you?”  “Five.”

I say to him – but I’m not gonna say exactly what I said… I said to him “Harry, I don’t know you that well, but it occurs to me that there must have been some five-year-old version of something like you looking at your old man, and saying “You lay an effin’ hand on her and I will kill you.” And he goes “Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly what it was.” And I said, “How do I know that?” He said, “Okay, I’ll bite. How did you know that?” I said “Because you defend yourself like an angry five-year-old. Will you let me help you learn how to stand up for yourself without bloodying everybody?” And he said – good man, true to form, true story – “Yeah, I think you’re better.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Aww, yeah…

Terry Real: That’s a good illustration of the kind of therapy we do… And that’s what you do with a grandiose person. The first order of business is you have to kind of stop them in their tracks and wake them up. “Listen, that cigar in the elevator is making everybody around you sick. Put it out, and put it in your pocket.” That’s what most therapists don’t do. Woman after woman brings a tough guy to me, or the guy is with a grandiose woman, and because I’m the last ditch, they’ve been to three, four, five – the record is of eight therapists – and not one therapist really takes them on… But we do. When it comes to grandiosity, the first order of business is loving confrontation. “Harry, this is what you’re doing to blow your foot off. You will never be happy doing this. Let me help you get out of it.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah… Do you feel that you’re appealing to a  wisdom or  a health inside of them that resonates when you confront in these loving ways, that gives them access to something that if they’re really honest — perhaps they don’t really feel good about their behavior, and that experience of connecting with you and having that path being opened up, what’s naturally occurring for them is working for them and for the process? Do you feel like that’s true?

Terry Real: Oh, I do, absolutely… And I talk about this. It’s a little technical, but I talk about three parts of the human psyche. There is the functional, adult part, prefrontal cortex, that is here, and thoughtful,  and can make choices, and can be adult and grown up. Then there’s the wounded child part of us, very young, usually just overwhelmed, wants to cry, and be held for a thousand years. When I do visualization work, it’s usually the first minutes of life, up to four or five. And then there’s what I call the adaptive child part of us. That’s the part of us that adapted to what was going on.

For example, your passive-aggressive, withdrawn man, I would ask that man “Listen, let me ask you a question… You who are constantly withdrawn, never open, conflict-avoidant, but passive-aggressive, resentful, it leaks out sideways… Let me ask you a question, oh, passive-aggressive, withdrawn guy… Who tried to control you growing up?” And the answer is always someone.

I have a saying, “I’ve never met a passive-aggressive person who didn’t grow up in a family in which had they been openly-aggressive, they would have gotten a snot kicked out of them emotionally, or physically, or both.” You learn these things.

I have a saying, “Show me the thumbprint and I’ll tell you about the thumb.” Like, a guy behind big walls is  a guy who is defending against, for example, an intrusive mother. The thicker the wall, the more the intrusion. This is his adaptation.

My friend, Thomas Hübl – I’m teaching a course with him right now; I wanna tell you about it in a bit…

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I’m on your list, yes. I might take it.

Terry Real: Oh, good. I would like everybody to be on our list and find out about it. Anyway, Thomas has a saying that I’ve adapted… I teach my therapists/students “Always respect the exquisite intelligence of the adaptive child.” That little boy or girl did exactly what he needed to do to preserve his integrity and autonomy against all of that control. But I have another saying… Adaptive then, maladaptive now.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes…

Terry Real: You’re not with that person. And I’ve got another quick story… This is a quick one to illustrate this. Bill – we’ll call him Bill – was a liar, chronic liar. Bill would lie about what he had for lunch; Bill would be wearing sneakers and tell you he had shoes on. He was just a pervasive, chronic liar his whole life… And his wife was fed up and was gonna divorce him over it. So I do a little excavation: “Where did this come from? How did you learn to lie?” And because I’ve been around the block with this, the question was “Who tried to control you?” His dad was all over him. Militaristic, strict, religious, stern, shaming, my way or the highway, “What did you have for lunch?” I mean, all over this kid. And what did he learn to do? He learned to lie to his father.

He learned to keep some little domain that was his, that wasn’t ruled by this horrible tyrant, and he kept his sense of integrity and autonomy alive. Good for Bill! Congratulations! What a brilliant thing to learn to do. I would have to see what happened to you if you didn’t lie to your father. You’d be on a [unintelligible 00:49:34.16] he would have eaten you up alive. Well done! But not now.

So we talk about all this, and he has some feelings, and I get an empty chair and have him talking to that little boy who was so mauled by his father. He adopts that little boy, and says he’s gonna be there for him, and things are better.

The wife and Bill come in three weeks later; they’re all smiles. I say “Okay, tell me the story.” That weekend his wife sent him to the store with a grocery list. He came home without (we’ll say) the orange juice. She says to him “Where is the orange juice?” And on the tip of his tongue was “It was out.” And instead, he took a breath — I call it the second consciousness. This is a moment of recovery. He took a breath, he screwed [unintelligible 00:50:30.02] he looked at his wife and he said “I forgot it.” She burst into tears… True story.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I bet…

Jessica Higgins: Because she is in contact with him.

Terry Real: And said “I’ve been waiting for this for 25 years.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Because she is in contact with him.

Terry Real: That’s right. She’d been waiting for the authentic Bill to show up for the whole marriage. But you have to  understand how he learned to twist himself. You have to have compassion for the adaptive child. It’s the adaptive child that’s like a  battery that stores all the harshness that was in your family and discharges it at you in shame. It is just a battery that is doing to you what it learned to you – it’s a little boy/girl that is just repeating what it learned. You  have to stand up to it with compassion, but you do still have to stand up to it.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes… Well, I know we’re winding down on our time, and I have one more question… You’re speaking about really healthy relating, and as you’re talking about too the gender norms, if you will, or healthy masculinity… Are you finding that there are more avenues for men to have good role models in this regard, of being in contact with their emotions, and being able to really show up more vulnerably and authentically… Are you seeing more places for men to get support around that?

Terry Real: I think it’s an age issue. I think the younger the man, the more he is stepped out of the traditional role, and the more support there will be for him. I’m a big fan of millennial guys. I think millennial men, for all their narcissism and all their flaws, are the most progressive — you know, these men have all been raised by feminist women. They’re pretty progressive. They’re for gay marriage, they can open up their heart more than others.

On the other hand, let’s not get too rosy, because at the same time that you have men being more open, take a look at what’s going on culturally and politically in the country and around the world right now. The reassertion of the patriarch, of the strong man has never been more prevalent than it is right now in the world.

I wrote a piece for a magazine and I said that masculinity is at war with itself right now. There are two versions of masculinity. One is cooperative, and ecological, and humble, the other is dominant and is about power and is about control. And by the way, I also said in that article that if we don’t move from the old one to the new one, we will put ourselves and possibly the entire planet in jeopardy. We need a new paradigm. It’s time to come out of that dominance model.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Well, I’ll make sure to put the link to that on today’s show notes. It sounds incredibly important. How, Terry, can people — I’ve mentioned your website… Is there anything else you wanna say about what you’re offering, or how people can engage with you further?

Terry Real: Yeah, two things. One is anybody who’s interested in this can go to my website and go to my store. There’s a pull-down menu and you go to the store. In the store is a CD-set or downloadable files called Fierce Intimacy. It’s six lectures that I gave, and it’s chock-full of skills, tools. I’d love everybody to listen to that.

And the other thing is that just today I started – but you can still listen to it – a seven-session course with my friend,  a German-Israeli mystic by the name of Thomas Hübl. It’s on evolutionary relationships. Really redefining relationships. And it also has an explicitly spiritual cast to it. Thomas is a world-renowed spiritual teacher, and of course, I’m a relational expert, and it’s a dialogue between the two of us. It’s a really beautiful thing. It’s called Evolutionary Relationships. We’ve got over a thousand people, but you can still sign up on the website for that.

I’d say those two things are great places to start. Fierce Intimacy and the new course I’m teaching now, Evolutionary Relationship.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Wonderful. And as you said, it’s a start. There’s so much more that you have to offer, and I encourage everyone to access that. And again, I’ll have the links on today’s show notes. Terry, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, your time, your knowledge with us today.

Terry Real: You’re welcome, Jessica, and thank you for the service that you provide with this podcast. I think you’re helping an awful lot of people. I’ll tell you something Pia once said to me, Jessica… Isn’t it nice to feel like you’re part of the solution and not part of the problem?

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Absolutely.

Terry Real: I celebrate you and this podcast. Keep it up.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Thank you.


I hope you have enjoyed today’s episode, again, with Terry Real. If you’re interested in links mentioned, you can visit, click on Podcast and you can find today’s episode, 213. There you’ll find the show notes, and  you can access the links mentioned.

Also, as we’re talking about the difficulty of cultivating intimacy, and the things mentioned today around shame, grandiosity, how it relates to self-esteem and relationship, I also recognize oftentimes in a heterosexual  relationship if the woman is more of the instigator, in the sense of pursuing and initiating closeness, and if the man stereotypically doesn’t have a positive frame around entering into these emotionally intimate conversations, it can feel extremely challenging. And one of the ways that we will protest this disconnect is through the form of criticism. “You don’t ever wanna talk about your feelings” or “You don’t seem to care about me. You’re turning away from this conversation.” It could look like many critical statements.

If you’re interested in getting support in how to shift criticism into connected communication, I wanna invite you to visit today’s show notes to access a free guide that gives you real tangible examples of how to switch your language from a more critical statement to a more connected statement. And again, you can find that on my website, Today’s show notes can be found on the section Podcast, and today’s episode is 213.

Until next time, I hope you take great care.

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication.

Stop the criticism loop, learn new ways to communicate
and strengthen the connection with your partner.


Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching