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By: Stephan Spencer


We are all imperfect humans, so we can’t expect to have had perfect parents or caregivers. Most parents do the best they can. It’s just an unfortunate reality that we as their children experienced trauma at their hands. Anything less than nurturing is trauma so the bar is pretty low. We have all experienced trauma in our childhoods. These traumas can still affect us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They can show up in our work, our relationships, our parenting and even our sense of self-worth.  

Robyn Firtel
“Most of our belief systems that are ingrained in our unconscious are right from our childhood.”
Robyn Firtel

My guest for this episode number 221, is Robyn Firtel, a phenomenal psychotherapist who I get to experience firsthand at a Secret Society intensive run by the author, Neil Strauss. Invited personally by Neil, Robyn blew me away with her insights and her exercises, including chair work, which we will be talking about in this episode. Robyn specializes in post induction therapy and the treatment of codependency, addiction, trauma, and relationship issues. She’s A student of the internationally renowned Pia Mellody. In this episode, Robyn and I will take a deep dive into childhood trauma, taming your inner demons, unhealthy patterns, including codependency and therapeutic models. This is going to be a groundbreaking episode that everyone needs to hear, including you. So let’s get started.

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Robyn, it’s so great to have you on the show.

Yes. Thanks so much for having me.

The way that I first learned about you and got to experience what you do, which is magic really, and I’m very sincere when I say that, it’s incredible, is through this thing called chair work. Neil Strauss has a secret society that I was a part of for many years. One of his intensives was an inner game intensive. It was all about addressing your inner demons, your wounding, your traumas, and all that. He brought you in to facilitate a group of us that went through something called chair work and it was profoundly impactful for me. Let’s start by explaining to our listeners what is chair work and why is it important.

Wow, that’s great. First of all, I’m so glad I had such an impact on you. Chairwork is usually done in therapy over time. You don’t really usually start someone in chair work. What it is, I’ll try and boil it down to a simple explanation, when we have relationships as adults, we have unconscious belief systems about our relationships. Most of those belief systems are ingrained in our unconscious right from childhood. Whatever you saw your parent’s marriage was like, or they weren’t married, or you only lived with your mom or your dad, whoever your parent was, you’re watching that parent and how they do relationships. You’re watching them do relationships with themselves and others. As we defined in this model, trauma is anything less than nurturing, it actually shapes your unconscious. I’ll get to the chair work in a minute. 

The best way I can explain it is our brain develops very slowly, especially the frontal lobes. Anything that happens to us, 0 through 18, starts filing in our brain and so in our adult relationships, a situation may happen and we overreact to the situation or we underreact. Say you have a partner that’s leaving to go out of town for two days and all of a sudden, you feel like you’re going to be abandoned by that person. That’s not about that situation. It’s coming from somewhere in your brain that had been programmed to believe that when someone leaves to out of town, they don’t come home.

The idea of chair work is to help go into the unconscious mind. It’s not hypnosis. The client is in a light meditative state. What I do is I help the person go back to the original trauma and we reprogram the brain to believe that there was a different outcome. It’s basically healing those early wounds from childhood during chair work. In the first part of chair work, which is inner child work and reprogramming, reparenting that little boy or little girl that was so wounded as well as the second half of chair work called feeling reduction work. I can go into that as well if you’d like me to.

Let’s start with reparenting because if somebody had not the best parents; many of us can relate. I love my parents and yeah, they got a lot of stuff wrong. I was actually raised primarily by my grandparents for let’s say the first 7–8 years of my life. They were very flawed as well. I had an interesting childhood. You know that ancient, is it a proverb or curse, may you live in interesting times. I had an interesting childhood. What does this reparenting look like?

If it’s okay, I’d use that example. Obviously, grandparents are better than not having any parents but it’s still not taking the place of your mom and your dad. What I would say in that situation is there an abandonment from mom and dad and for whatever reason they couldn’t take care of you. It’s not about blaming them. Everybody has life situations that come upon us and sometimes we lose control of the situation. Whatever reason, it doesn’t matter why, a child, meaning you, needs both parents to love, protect, nurture, and set boundaries in order for the brain to understand and start noticing, “Hey, I’m important.”

Most of our belief systems that are ingrained in our unconscious are right from our childhood. Share on X

Attachment in the first five years is the most important piece of child development for the rest of your life. If you didn’t have your parents as much as they should’ve been, there could be a real sense of not being valuable, or not being seen, or not being noticed. That reparenting would be, in the times as an adult, like if you were triggered and you started feeling unnoticed, or unwanted, or invisible. The idea is that you had your own reparenting programming from chair work or from therapy to where you can recognize, “Hey, I’m feeling unwanted, invisible, unloved.” You can reparent yourself by saying, “I have inherent self-worth. I’m not invisible. Who I am is important.” That would be an example of a reparenting. How that early childhood trauma can affect you as an adult.

Makes sense. It’s more than an intellectual exercise. This is very much an emotional experience, right?

Very much.

What is that experience like for somebody? I know because I’ve gone through it. Putting that person who is flawed and who’s very important to you in your upbringing in a chair in front of you while your eyes are closed and you’re visualizing this happening. Let’s walk the listeners through the emotional experience and how cleansing, satisfying, and relieving it is to go through this.

I love that you asked that. The first part of chair work is the inner child work. That’s when you’re not confronting the parent yet. That’s really to establish your relationship with yourself. That definitely needs to come first.

Basically, the person who that little child inside you relies on, looks up to and gets the protection from rather than the caregivers that gave you that protection in the past.

Exactly. The idea in the first half, before we get to the emotional side, is that you go back to the house where you had the trauma. I know people will say, “Well, I have a hard time visualizing. I don’t know if it’s going to work.” I’ve never seen it not work. In other words, we go into the year that you had the trauma. I guide you into that house but you’re an adult so you are, as an adult, going to get your inner child from that house. The idea is to reparent that child. 

I’ve had a situation where somebody only saw the child through smoke. They barely saw the child and then they couldn’t go on in the chair. They had a profound experience after that to where they felt more connected with themselves and they felt like they weren’t feeling shameful. It’s not the amount of chair work, it’s just the idea that you’re going into that unconscious mind and you’re reparenting that child that got traumatized. It’s anything less than nurturing. 

Someone might have not had overt abuse. A lot of people like yourself have more neglect. Neglect is the worst form of trauma a human being can go through because you’re actually feeling like you’re not being seen by your parents. A lot of people think of trauma as what you see on TV like physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, or spiritual abuse. It can be those things but neglect is one of the number one things I see that really traumatizes children and as adults as well, or the parents there are not present because of their own addictions. Work addiction is huge now. The parents are all working because everything is so expensive.

Leading back to your question. After the chair work with the reparenting, it could be, sometimes, doing some therapy. I know in this case we did an intensive so it was quicker. If I think the person’s ready and they think they’re ready, then we do, like what you said, is talking to the parents that caused the neglect, or caused the abuse, or caused whatever. The shame that you’re feeling from them, you’re actually giving back to them energetically.

Does that mean that you’re hurting the people that you probably still love? I know the answer to this. Our listener is probably thinking, “What the heck? I don’t want to be the perpetrator here.”

The process is not being abusive to that parent. It’s not blaming that parent. Let me give you a concrete example. This will be more helpful. I worked with a client before. She had an enormous amount of anger. The anger sometimes was not even outwardly. It was inward anger. She had a lot of depression issues. Those are symptoms. She had anxiety. She would confront people which she shouldn’t be. She had an eating disorder, so some of her rage also went inwards. Anger turned inward is depression. She had a father that was very rageful that would frequently yell and scream. There was a lot of fighting between the parents and the dad was very hard on her. Every mistake that she made, he would yell at her.

During her chair work, the idea is not to belittle, label, and ridicule her father. The idea is that she had her own anger as a child but because of her father’s anger towards her, he actually if you think about it and it’s disgusting why it’s true, he threw up his anger into her body. She was carrying her anger, which we don’t want to get rid of all anger, you need it to set boundaries, but she was also carrying his anger.

In chair work, we’re energetically giving that parent their anger back by breathwork and by saying, “I give you back your anger. I give you back your anger.” It’s a process to where you can think about it this way, you’re letting that person have back what they gave to you, which they shouldn’t have.

Take responsibility for your own healing. The best person to save yourself is you.

You’ve been temporarily carrying this load that you didn’t need to and that really, energetically, you shouldn’t be, but now it’s time to hand that back to them and then they can go off with it.

Yes. You know I’m a mom. My daughter, if there was any time that I shamed her or I was angry and she wanted to give me the energy back, I would gladly take it. If you’re the parent and you love your child, you can think about it that way. The question is, are you going to protect your parents by not giving them this energy back or are you going to protect that inner child that we just rescued from the house. Sometimes, they are stuck with that question and can’t give the energy back because they’re feeling too much guilt. They want to caretake of their parents and then if you look at their adult relationships, you can see that they’re caretaking all over the place.

Caretaking sounds like a good thing if you just look at the word but it’s dysfunctional.

Caretaking, if it’s compassionate, is that, “I’m doing something for you out of the goodness of my heart and you can’t do this for yourself or I’m going to do this for you without hurting myself.” Codependency in caretaking is, “I’m going to do this for you because I want power over you. I’m going to do this for you because I’m enabling you to not grow up or not do it yourself so I want to be the hero here.” Codependency is also, “I’m going to do this for you but abandon myself.”

Be the martyr.

Right, be the martyr. These are really great questions because there’s a very big difference between the two. If energetically or unconsciously, the client is taking care of their parents by not giving them the energy back, that’s exactly what’s happening. Whatever is going on in the chair is going on in that person’s adult relationships.

And this is true whether the parent, the caretaker, or the person who was raising you passed away or if they are still alive?

Sometimes, people have a lot of guilt because the parent passed away and then I’ll let them know, “If these were your parents, don’t you think they’d want you to do this to get healing? Wouldn’t they want the energy back?” But if the person isn’t ready to do that in the chair, I don’t push them. In this model, I don’t push people past what they’re resisting because that means they’re not ready for it. We might pull back and do some regular therapy around the caretaking dynamic and then when they go back into the chair, they’re ready.

If you see that somebody has this codependency going on, where maybe they’re enabling somebody else’s bad behavior, that’s a definition of codependence, right?


Do you confront them? Do you let them discover it on their own through the chair work? How do you bring it to their attention? Make it their discovery or their idea so that they can solve it because then they take ownership?

My style is not confrontive but, “Hey, I’m going to tell you the truth.” The way that it’s designed before we do chair work is there’s a whole set of the root of codependency education. In those, the client gets coached on self-worth. The second is boundaries. When we get into the boundaries section, the education part, before the client gets into the chair, they’re very well aware of what caretaking means. That’s why we don’t start with chair work. 

If you’re going into therapy and you’re starting with trauma work, that can be a very dangerous place for some people. You need to be stabilized, especially on an outpatient basis, and make sure that there are no other addictions or mood disorders before you get started in the chair. The chair is really the last part of therapy.

So there’s a lot of prerequisites that you make sure they go through first. For example, understanding that there are boundaries. Not just a boundary that keeps you safe, but there are two boundaries. I think you call them the listening boundary and the talking boundary.

Good memory. I’m so impressed.

It made a difference for me so I internalized it and now I’ve got my listening boundary and my talking boundary.

You aren't responsible for your trauma, but you are responsible for your healing. Share on X

That’s great. There’s also the boundary violations, especially when I see couples and tell them that they’re not candidates for couples therapy until they do individual work. If there are boundary violations going on in a family, which is a lot of yelling, criticizing, blaming, interrupting, trying to control, manipulation, addiction issues. At that point, those need to stop before I train people in talking and listening boundaries because what can happen—I’ve seen this—couples can go into therapy and the therapy can give them a false sense of intimacy because they’re doing really well in the room of therapy. Then, they leave and go home, and it becomes totally disrespectful again.

Back to the old patterns.

Back to the old patterns. Those two people really need to do their own family of origin work before they come back together as a couple. The couple’s work, Stephan, is so short after they’ve both done their individual work. They do their individual work, this is just assuming there’s no addictions or abuse, and then they’re in couple’s work just learning talking and listening boundaries for maybe two months and they’re done because most of what’s going on in our relationships, we’re bringing in from our past.

In fact, there is this couple’s therapy called Imago. I interviewed the founder and creator of it, Harville Hendrix.

Oh wow. That’s great.

Great episode. Listeners, you all have to listen to that episode.

Absolutely. Imago’s fabulous.

Helen LaKelly Hunt, his wife, was in that episode as well. She was pivotal in his development of Imago. They’re teaching workshops all over the world. They have a whole slew of trained experts on Imago and couple’s therapists who do individual and couple’s counseling using the Imago approach. It’s so powerful.

The idea of Imago, Italian for image, is that you look at your loved one, your intimate partner, and see what attracts you to them subconsciously are the extremes of an amalgamation of your caregivers. If you had an alcoholic father, you very well might seek out an alcoholic partner or the opposite of that.

That’s right. Interestingly, I’m actually trained in Imago work.


I do the dialogue with couples at the end. I’m a firm believer in that way of communication once the trauma is cleared. Usually, in heterosexual couples, the woman projects what they haven’t healed with the father in finding her spouse. With men, they find a woman that they have not healed that trauma with their mother. Interestingly, in homosexual couples, the man will seek out another man who has trauma with his dad. It’s the same sex unconscious trauma projected in homosexual couples and in heterosexual couples, it’s the opposite.

Is that true also for a homosexual couple of two women?

Yes. In lesbians, they will project the unconscious trauma that they haven’t healed with mom onto their partner. If I have two lesbians, if there are a couple’s issues, I’m still doing therapy on dad but mostly, the projection is usually from mom. That’s not a rule. Sometimes, even in heterosexual, you might have married someone that seems, when you really think about it, exactly, if you’re a woman, like your mother. That’s not the rule, but in general, that’s what happens. You said the woman who had the alcoholic father marries the alcoholic or she becomes an alcoholic herself.

Then you end up potentially, depending on how the relationship was with the mother, let’s say like with my mother, she and I had emotional enmeshment because we both saw my grandfather, her father, as the enemy and aligned on that. That was an unhealthy bonding that we had because of my grandfather. I’ve got to heal that in myself whether or not she is still alive or she’s passed; she’s now passed. I could heal that either way, then I move on with my life, and I’m more whole for my intimate relationship with my wife.

Absolutely. What you had said is in the beginning, she wasn’t around this much, right?

Yeah. She had a mental illness that prevented her from being a good caretaker for me and my grandmother recognized this when I was living there as an infant. She said, “No, I need to take him.”

Okay, got it. You would be set up then in two different ways. The first six or seven years, it would be more that you would be set up for a love addiction, which is more feeling of shame, feeling less than, having no boundaries, having a sense that you’re going to be abandoned by your partner, and not feeling good enough. Then, the enmeshment part, which is that your mom is treating you like an adult or maybe talking about your grandfather with you instead of parenting you.

That would set you up for more what we typically call love avoidance. The mother is sucking the energy out of you rather than giving it to you. So then, your unconscious stuff would also be, say your wife got upset or was a little bit emotional, or needy, that would totally turn you off and you don’t want to be around it because of the unconscious reminder of mom.

If you’re not conscious of this, you just got tapes that run in the background and you end up behaving in ways like, “How the heck did that come out? Why did I even say that or do that?” First of all, the awareness of it gives you huge leverage and then, healing it allows you to not be reactive when these situations come up. The triggers are no longer there.

Absolutely. What you said is very true. You get to start operating from a state of being present. Everyone always talks about this new age thing about being present and in the moment. I would laugh at that because most of the time, we don’t even know we’re not being present. We think we’re totally being present when we project things on other people. The idea is that you are awake and you’re not being dictated by these old belief systems, or these old tapes, or these old horrible wounds. 

This is a classic one. I get calls all the time. “My husband, or my wife, or my boyfriend, or my girlfriend… I was in therapy for three years, or I was married, or I’m in a relationship with a narcissist, or a borderline.” I’m thinking to myself, “You’ve been in therapy for this long and you still haven’t owned your own stuff. You were labeling everybody else as sick except for yourself. There’s been no personal responsibility about why did you pick this person or why you’re still there.” It’s just maddening. 

The divorce rate is so high. In San Diego County, it’s like 70%. If people would just say, “Okay, let me take 100% responsibility for my 20%. Let me see my part in this and do my own work. Stop blaming everybody for my life and the way it is or the way I am.” You will be so free to do that but it takes a lot of courage to go in there and stop blaming.

Once you’ve done that, you’ve gone from a victimhood status to being in charge of your own life because there are no victims, only volunteers. Was it you who taught me that one?

Yes. Unless you…

Unless you’re a child and you don’t have control of your environment.

Yes. When you’re a child, you are a victim. You are an absolute victim. Obviously, if you’re a victim of a crime, you’re a victim at the moment that the crime happens to you but in all your experiences, you can choose to either thrive or continue on. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to grief. There are situations that happened to you that are innocent suffering but you get to choose if you’re going to be a victim to that.

A child’s formative years is the most crucial phase of a human’s life. How children are treated serves as a foundation for their future.

Right. Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.

I love that. That is absolutely true.

I learned this from studying Byron Katie’s work and then I had her on my podcast, on the show. That was such a profound episode. We actually delved into some limiting beliefs that I had, and some of my core issues, and used what she calls The Work, the four questions, and the turnaround process on that specific example. It’s really instructive and unreal to hear this supplied to an actual current situation at the time that we did the interview. It was a really good episode. Listeners, you’ve got to listen to that one too. Byron Katie, she has changed so many people’s lives, millions and millions of people’s lives. She’s got an incredible book that has sold millions of copies. She’s amazing.

A lot of times, the suffering that some of us have gone through, including me, brings you into a way that helps people that if you hadn’t gone through it, there’s no way you could really understand. I grew up in South Africa before apartheid was abolished, so I was around a lot of war trauma. We actually came here. We escaped to the United States for many years and went through my own abusive household and my own addiction issues. I’ve been sober now, 22 years, I can’t even count them out and overcome many obstacles and many traumas. Almost every ACE score, which is the childhood trauma score, I have a high score.

ACE is Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Yes. Because of the pain and suffering that I went through, I came to this work because I wanted something deeper than just regular therapy where you just go in and talk about your week. I needed something that was much deeper because of all the trauma. A lot of times, people do get labeled with personality disorders or real biological depression and bipolar disorder. Organically, it’s a very small percentage. Most of the issues underneath bipolar and depression is post-traumatic stress and a lot of it is coming from childhood.

What are the ACE scores that are a problem and what are ACE scores that are pretty typical and normal-ish? Normal is not really the right word to use in that situation but what’s typical, I guess?

A typical ACE score is something typical. Everybody goes through some sort of trauma. The ACE scores in the work that I do is very different because, in the work that I do, anything less than nurturing is defined as trauma. Whereas in ACE scores, that would be very adverse. Things like sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, a parent dying, moving countries, and all that. In the work that I do, I’ve had people say, “I’ve had no trauma.” But when you really dive in, you see that the mom was so busy cleaning the house, or dad was so busy fixing things or working all the time. That’s a big one. Both parents were working and they didn’t really get that much attention. They ended up taking care of their younger siblings. The parents were too tired, struggling to work. That’s a trauma that wouldn’t be on the ACE score. There is neglect but the neglect there is more like you weren’t fed, you didn’t have a house to live.

In this model, I’m looking at the symptoms that you’re having as an adult, tracing them back, then going in there to that original trauma, and getting that wound healed so that you can live your life exceptionally. Not just an ordinary life that you’re living out of your past and you have the same tapes playing over and over again, but you’re really awake to gratitude, love, compassion, and connection with other people.

Neglect in the ACE scoring would be something like your parent that you live with is never home at night, working third shift so you, as a young child, spend all night by yourself, which happened to me. I spent maybe two years of my childhood living with my mother. After age seven, I forgot exactly when it was, it’s all a fussy bit. I would spend all night in this house by myself. That was the easy stuff. Just having to be in my mother’s house by myself.

Were you scared?

I was. I ended up working all night long. I would teach myself computer programming. I would code all night long during the summer and then sleep during the day as a way to control my environment a little bit more. My mother wasn’t home so what am I going to do? Just sleep and who knows what could happen. 

But then, the stuff with my grandfather and his physical abuse. He was an angry man. He wore these steel tip shoes and he’d kick me in the shins, pull my hair. He was a real threat in my life. My grandmother protected me from him to some limited degree, not very effectively, but she was also mentally ill so it was a whole other can of worms. And then, she passed away. She stayed alive with cancer a lot longer than she probably should have because she felt this need to watch over me and make sure that I was okay. 

I remember her being in a hospital bed in her room and she would be reading me Jehovah’s Witness’ The Watchtower. It’s a weekly magazine and trying to convert me to Jehovah’s Witness. It was crazy. There are plenty of gifts, actually. We can see those now but at the time, I could see a gift, which is pretty unusual for a child to see a gift in this scenario at a young age but I saw how crazy they all were.

You knew that at the time. Some kids don’t know that.

Right. It’s the new normal. It’s like the expression, I don’t know who discovered water but it certainly wasn’t a fish. You’re immersed in this and you don’t see how dysfunctional it is but I did. There was one moment that I can point to that said, “Aha! It’s all clear for me.” I was quite young, I don’t remember how young, maybe I was four or five, I don’t know, I opened this drawer in the upstairs of my grandparent’s place and all I saw was a drawer jammed full of soap slivers. I’m like, “What in the hell is this? This is absolutely crazy.” It clicked for me like, “Wow, they’re crazy.”

First of all, that’s amazing. That you were able to somehow see this is not normal, this is crazy, because you had no comparison, I’m assuming. You sound like you were alone a lot so weren’t over at friend’s houses.

In fact, they lived in a ghetto so I wasn’t able to really go outside. One time, somebody tried to abduct me. Another time, some bad neighborhood kid tricked me into holding a lit firecracker which went off in my hand. It was a dicey time in my childhood. A lot of these things, people don’t know about me and I just got a lot of stuff in this, but I’m doing pretty well. I just got a good life.

But you’ve worked through it.

I’ve worked through it.

Stephan, let me ask you this. When you think about how difficult it was with your grandfather who was physically abusive to you and then your mom was very neglectful, which do you think affected you more as an adult if you really thought about it?

My gut tells me, my mother.

Yes. Why do you think that is?

There’s the critical faculty which has your sentry. The guard that protects your unconscious mind. I think the sentry let’s stuff through seeing my mother as less of a threat. That’s my gut telling me that.

Thank you for sharing all of that. I appreciate you trusting me and trusting the audience. We see someone one way. We can’t imagine them having this environment but you’ve done a lot of work. It’s obvious. The neglect is difficult because as an adult when things happen to you, there’s no parenting voice from a mother coming in. Do you see what I mean?

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Share on X

Say you failed at something, you came home as a child, and you have a present mother, you would tell your mother, “Hey, I didn’t do well on this test.” Your mom would say, “What can you do differently? Can you study differently?” or, “Don’t worry. You’re not defined by your grade,” or, “Let’s talk to a tutor.”

If you’re not getting that constant nurturing, presence, and protection then, as an adult, you have a failure, which we all do, and then there’s nothing except sadness or shame coming in. We cannot parent ourselves in any other way than how we were parented. If there was nothing, then all of a sudden a situation happens and you’ve got nothing in there going, “Okay, you can do this. Try again.” You’re left with these symptoms of emptiness, depression, isolation, loneliness, or not feeling like you fit in.

Or dread, or feeling like everything doesn’t work out for me. It’s like the exact opposite. I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I’m sure we can think of people in our lives that that’s how they operate. They’re walking into an environment saying. “How do I stay safe? When is the other shoe going to drop? This is only a temporary respite from the disaster that is my life.” There are people like that pushed everybody else away and they wonder like, “Why am I so lonely?”

That’s right. The suicide rates are so high. That’s one end of it. That’s the shame. We also talked about families. And this is another set of trauma, by the way. People don’t understand that the entire life of the child is spent with the parents praising them, being there overly for everything, and telling them how great they are. That’s the other side of trauma. That’s the other side of the shame. Your family was set up to disempower you.

The other side is this false empowerment on the child so that the child grows up as an adult feeling entitled and feeling like they’re actually better than other people.

In Kabbalah, I learned that this is called Bread of Shame.

I love Kabbalah.

Me too. I’ve got three episodes on the show. I’ve had Kabbalah 1, 2, and 3 from the Kabbalah Centre twice. Well, we didn’t go through Kabbalah 3 the second time because we ended up going on a big trip and then I got married. That’s what it was. We couldn’t continue with the Kabbalah 3 at the time so we paused that but we’ve done Practical Kabbalah and everything.

All three of my instructors from the Kabbalah Centre have been on this show. Yehuda Ashkenazi, and David Ghiyam have all been on the show. Those are all excellent episodes, listeners. Life-changing, game-changing sort of stuff. It’s like the most ancient self-help movement. It is so powerful. You don’t have to be Jewish or anything. You could be agnostic and get massive value out of it.

This concept of Bread of Shame from Kabbalah is so pertinent here because if you imagine you give your child let’s say on their 16th birthday a brand new car and they didn’t have to work for it, what you’ve done is you’ve created this entitlement complex where they expect the world to be handed to them on a silver platter and you have disempowered them from taking proactive action in their life.

You know what? It’s not even only that. It’s that the child already has the history of starting to do drugs or the teen is extremely disrespectful to the parents and the parents still get them the car.

Yes. They’re getting rewarded for the bad behavior.

Exactly. Or the parents are buying them lots of material things because they feel guilty because they’re not there. I like that concept. What did you say? The Bread of Shame?

Bread of Shame. That’s the English translation of the Hebrew. It’s so powerful. When you are helping somebody out and you think, “Well, is this actually enabling them in a codependent way? Am I being helpful in a way that is self-empowering for them?”

It’s because when you’re helping someone that can help themselves, especially with kids, they’re at the age where they should be doing cooking for themselves, doing their laundry, or learning interdependent skills and you’re still doing it for them, that’s usually more about the parent not letting go. Then, it disables that child to be a disabled adult.

It’s wishful thinking. “I wish I had a better childhood than I did so I’m going to give my child that.”

I see that a lot. I had to watch out for that myself. What are appropriate skills for my daughter to have so that I’m not overdoing things for her because of my own neglect from my mom who was a total workaholic and is still is?

This is really powerful stuff and there’s so much to unpack here. I wonder if we could go into the addiction side of it. I know from what you said that you’re sober for 22 years. Some people think of it as a label but no, that’s like an identity. You are sober. That’s like the difference between saying I don’t smoke or I stopped smoking versus I’m a non-smoker. If you’re a non-smoker, that’s something you’ve taken into your identity and you’re going against your own identity if you were to smoke. That’s a stronger deterrent to start smoking again. You’re sober. That’s who you are. That’s part of who you are.

This is a good question. Sober means I don’t use any mind-altering substances. I mean that in the sense of this could be for some people, shopping is an addiction, exercise can be an addiction, food can be an addiction, work can be an addiction. Anything addictive is something that is numbing you out of your life. The root that we talked about before are these unconscious feelings of being ashamed, not good enough, or feelings of being better than. The root of addiction is what I call the spiritual malady, which is that the person feels restless, irritable, discontent, and empty without that substance. Again, love addiction also. You can be addicted to a person. 

When I say I’m sober, it just means that I don’t take any mind-altering substances. I still participate in my recovery program. The reason I do this is because I feel like that recovery program saved my life at the time. I spent about 20 of the 23 years really giving back and taking people through the work. That’s all-volunteer stuff obviously because I don’t want to take, take, take from this recovery program and not give back. When I say I’m sober, that clues people in. I’ve had many people over the years say, “Well, I’m an alcoholic,” or, “I’m using opioids,”  or, “I’m taking too much of my prescription of Valium. How did you get sober?” Saying sober is more of an opening for somebody else to go, “Okay, this person has some sobriety. How do I get sober?”

That’s a conversation starter and it gives them a feeling of safety and being able to raise this delicate topic with you.

Right, exactly. That’s why it’s much more acceptable now to be an addict in recovery than it was when I got sober back in 1997 when people still smoke in recovery rooms. If you said you’re in recovery or you said you were sober, you were very much labeled. Times have changed. There was a lot of stigma around being in recovery. It wasn’t cool to be in recovery.

It’s an epidemic in our country right now, alcohol, opioids, work, and cellphone use. I can’t tell you, Stephan, how many people, and I’m sure you see this too, I’m out to lunch or I’m walking around, I see parents with little kids and I’ve seen someone ate an entire meal while the parent was on the cellphone and the little 4-year-old is trying to get the parent’s attention. I say there’s cellphone neglect. We want to look at all of the root of all of this because this is what causes addiction.

The child is going to model the behavior that you’re exhibiting, not the words that you say. You’re going to say, “Don’t smoke,” or, “Don’t use your cellphone so much,” or whatever, but they’re doing it. The thing that’s going to stick is the behavior that they see.

Absolutely, because what the parent is saying is that this device and who I’m talking to in the device is more important than you right now, and I’m going to escape this precious moment with you to shape your life, to be on my email. That background has really motivated me to not have cellphone use around my daughter. I really limit it. We have a lot of cellphone rules about turning the phone in and not having cellphones at meals. It’s becoming a huge problem.

Because even just having the phone on the table changes the conversation. It lowers the quality of the conversation even if you haven’t touched it or looked at it. The whole conversation is of lower quality.

It is. Why? When the cellphone flashes, the person’s thinking in the moment, “If I look at my cellphone and if someone texts me or I get a call, even though I’m talking to you, I’m thinking, I wonder who that was.”

Deep Work by Cal Newport

That creates attention residue, which is a term I learned from Cal Newport, another guest on the show, author of Deep Work. It’s about 20 to 25 minutes, the research shows, where you have attention residue. Just checking your email or having your mind occupied by that phone call or whatever, that took 5 seconds or 2 seconds of your awareness stays with you for 20 to 25 minutes. It lowers your productivity, knocks you out of a flow state, and of course would lower the quality of your conversation and your presence that you’re providing to the person in the room with you.

I absolutely believe that. That is very true, especially with kids. I taught parenting classes for many years before I came to the work that I do now and I realized they cannot parent their children because they’re not reparenting themselves. One of the most important things on how you can be a great parent—you can’t be perfect, you’re going to make mistakes—the best gift that you can give your kids is presence. Being present with them, not distracted. Being loving, nurturing, and the fourth most important thing are boundaries, especially with teenagers. Respectful boundaries. The way that children and teens feel like we were caring about them is when you set boundaries for them because if you don’t set boundaries, they’re not going to learn how to set boundaries for themselves.

This will be a good point to reiterate the idea of a listening boundary and a talking boundary. If our listener wanted to create a listening boundary and a talking boundary for themselves, what would be the process?

Let me ask you. What do you think is more difficult for people or for you? Listening or talking?

I think it depends on the person but I think for me, the listening boundary is harder to keep up. I’m more cognizant of the words I use because words are powerful and it shapes our reality and the whole field around us. That’s how we manifest. You learn this in Kabbalah. You’re manifesting all the time by the words that you speak so be intentional with the words that you use. I’m more conscious about what I say, so the talking boundary is easier.

The listening boundary for me, I can say I’ve got this bubble around me that is protective and only lets in the things that are helpful, valuable, nurturing, and that feels good and the other stuff bounces off. It’s hard when you hear that and you’re like, “Wow. I can’t believe that person just said that to me.” Clearly, it didn’t bounce off of the bubble.

In the listening boundary—this is kind of confusing—there are two different ones. One is your bubble or your protection. When you hear someone talk, it’s really important that you’re only taking in what you believe is true for you, that you just talked about that. It’s difficult to let things that aren’t true for you to bounce off your energy field, which is why you would need to move your body back physically.

The most important thing in listening is what you’re telling yourself when the person’s talking. If you are present with someone, the background needs to be, “I’m curious about who this person is.” This is what you’re doing while you’re listening. It’s conscious listening. First of all, when someone’s expressing something to you, it is a sacred moment. Even if you don’t have kids; if it’s a niece, a nephew, or a child. The most sacred thing you can do for another human being is to hear them.

In fact, when you’re listening, the deeper the pain, the less you say, the more you listen. People need to be heard. So when the person is talking, the background is, “I’m curious about who you are.” In your mind, you’re thinking, “Thank you for sharing this with me. This is sacred. This is just me and you talking, listening.”

Right because normally, when we’re listening without intention or consciousness, it’s with judgment. We apply meaning to things and we’re reading into stuff. We’re the best meaning makers out there so we’re creating all these meanings around like, “This person just showed up five minutes late. They disrespect me. They don’t value me.”

Forget about the taboo in seeking counseling. Your healing is more important than other people’s opinions.

Yes. You’ve gone one up and so you’re in a judgment.

Or one down and you’re like, “Wow. I just don’t matter. I’m unimportant.”

That’s why it’s very important when you get to the listening boundaries and especially in Imago dialogue that you have already been trained and not going one up and one down. If you’re feeling less than the other person, you’re not going to be able to hear them because all you’re focusing on is them liking you. If you’re one up on someone and you’re judging them, you won’t hear them because you’re going to listen to them through a filter. 

If you’re thinking critical, judgemental thoughts about the person that’s talking, you’re not in a listening boundary. If you’re thinking critical judgemental thoughts about yourself when you’re listening, you’re not in a listening boundary. The listening boundary is when you are in the right size with someone. Meaning, I’m okay and you’re okay. Now, I’m going to hear your truth.

That reminds me of transactional analysis where it’s parent-child, child-parent, or functional adult-functional adult. That’s where you want to be. A functional adult talking to a functional adult.

Right. If there is a parent-child dynamic like the listening person is one up and then the talking person is one down, there is no real intimacy happening. If in the listening boundary the other person starts violating your boundaries, you’re talking to them and then they start criticizing you, they start making you wrong, they interrupt you… 

They think of that retort as you’re speaking so that they’re not actually listening. They’ve got the whole defense mechanism that they’re preparing in the background instead of truly listening to you. That happens too.

Right. Let’s say you’re in a listening boundary. You’re open, you’re curious. You still need a boundary because if the talking person starts violating your boundary, they start criticizing you, interrupting you, blaming you, making you wrong, at that moment, it’s like karate. Then, you would say, “I’m not okay with this amount of disrespect.” That’s when you would try and control what they’re doing. Does that make sense? You were listening until you start being disrespected. Once you’re being disrespected, the conversation on your end needs to be, “I’m not okay with you interrupting me. I’m not okay with you blaming me in this conversation. I’m not okay with you criticizing me.” You take in the information even if it’s not true for you. If it’s not true for you, you disregard it even though it’s true for them. But if they start being disrespectful, which is abusive then, you say, “I’m not okay.”

“I’m not okay with this behavior.” That is not only good for you, but that’s also good for them. Especially when you’re dealing with kids because that means that they understand that there are limits.

Absolutely. My daughter is a teenager. She’s 15 and 15-year-olds know everything. If only I knew what a 15-year-old knows. Occasionally, if  I asked her to do something like, “Please clean your room.” She gives me an attitude back, which teenagers do. But if she goes on with the attitude, I’ll say, “Listen, I’m not going to move forward in this day with you until you can start respecting me because what you’re saying to me right now is disrespectful.”

Notice how I’m not saying, “You’re a bad person. How dare you do this.” I’m still respectful when I set a boundary with her. As far as the listening boundary goes, if you’re in an adult to adult conversation and the other person is expressing their perception of their reality to you, that is a gift. You might not agree with that perception but that’s okay. Two people in a relationship should be having different perspectives because you’re not the same. You’re two individuals.

In fact, that’s what makes the relationship work, is that you’re not carbon copies of each other. You’ve got compatibility and you’ve got polarity.

Exactly, and you’re taking in that reality and it’s the same thing with the child. When the child is expressing something to you, if you’re curious about them and you’re not offering them advice without them asking you, especially teenagers, they’re going to open up to you so much more. Like, “Mom, I had a good day.” “Okay, well tell me more about your good day.” “This happened, this happened, this happened.” “Oh, that’s great. Tell me more about that.” Instead of, “You should’ve done this. You should’ve done that.” The more curious you get with children, with teenagers, with your partner, with everybody that you meet, that starts to talk to you.

Prospects if you’re selling in context. This is just a great way to be in the world.

Yes, it’s huge.

Curious without judgment.

Curious without judgment. Curious and then when the judgment starts, you get back into compassion unless there’s a boundary violation. I never tell people. This is not like love everyone and be humble. It’s if you start being disrespectful, that’s when the conversation is going to take a turn. You can be compassionate, but you don’t have to disrespect because you’re trying to be a compassionate person. A compassionate person, like you said, Stephan, will call the person out on it.

A compassionate person is not a doormat.

Exactly. If you don’t want to be a doormat, you got to get off the floor. That’s more of the listening boundary.

Neglect is the worst form of trauma a human being can go through because it gives out the feeling of not being seen. Share on X

How do you install these boundaries? Do you have this visualization exercise that you go through? You listen to some guided meditations? Visualize whatever like this bubble or this catcher’s mitt, or umbrella? I remember a bit about the process that you did. What can our listeners do to install these boundaries?

Now, I can tell you. If you go to my course, it’s, the course is an 8-week course. You listen to one module at a time and it takes you through about nine hours of this education. In there, there’s an hour and a half of talking and listening boundaries. You get a printout and you can practice it. There’s homework during the course. The whole course is you see me on a video and slides. You don’t read anything. There’s so much to the listening boundary and to coach people how to do it but the main thing you want to remember is to listen out of curiosity, to know when to hold them, to not say anything, when to fold them, and when to walk away. That’s a song by the way.

I knew that. I’m old enough to know that.

Yes, you do. Okay good. I don’t feel so old now. You need to understand that you listen with a boundary. You never listen without a boundary. You’re curious about what that person has to say but you’re also making sure that you’re respected in the conversation. That’s your responsibility. Then when you talk—there’s a whole section in the course about talking also—you can say anything to anybody as long as you’re doing it with respect.

Hopefully, you’re coming from a place of positive intention, wanting to reveal light—again, more Kabbalah concepts. Intention is very important. The words you say can be this exact same but if the intention is negative, then that’s going to reap negative things in the future. That’s part of the whole concept of Bread of Shame, is that when somebody gets something without earning it, it comes with side effects.

Yes. I love the side effects.

Somebody wins the lottery and they’re just a train wreck in life and they don’t care about anybody, they lose it. They end up in a worse scenario by the end of it than they started before they won that lottery. Side effects, they’re very real, intangible, and of course, they’re also spiritual and existential as well but they come when you have Bread of Shame.

I love how you bring that up and that you’re talking about Kabbalah. I get a lot of referrals from different religious organizations. The work is so tied up with spiritual concepts, whether it’s from the Kabbalah, or the bible, or yoga. It’s so much of that truth manifests itself in different forms. The thing I love about this work is it gives you real-life everyday tools that are actually very spiritual. Even if you don’t believe in God, if you believe in the power of love because when you talk, if you have an intention to rescue somebody, like you were saying, or control them or to fix them, then it’s better to not say anything or own it and say in the beginning, “I’m saying this to control or change you. 

Your intention when you talk is the same thing when you listen. You’re finding out who that person is. The purpose of talking is to express who you are at that moment. It’s not to try to change and control someone. You can’t. You cannot change or control somebody. It might be different with parents, and you’re guiding them, and you have boundaries with them but ultimately, you can’t control another human being unless you have a weapon. You are not in control of another person’s existence and you can’t play God and tell them how they should be to make you happy.

All the power that you have should be directed inward towards controlling yourself or your attention, focus, and intentionality so that is a model for everybody around you. That changes the field around you. Everybody changes because of that, not because you have gone on this quest to change somebody.

A compassionate person is not a doormat. You can be respectful yet still have boundaries. Share on X

That’s right. You were just talking about the quantum physics of power versus force. The only time you can try and control someone, I say this, is if they’re violating your boundaries. If someone is being disrespectful to me, you bet I’m going to try and control them. I’m going to tell them to stop. 

I wish we could keep going and going but we’re already over time.

I wish we could. I could talk to you forever.

This is fun and it’s such a powerful conversation.

Thank you, Stephan. That was great.

What is our listener going to do next? I want them to take a powerful next action here and work on either their own healing or healing somebody else. I’m sure there’s something in this episode that they can apply in their lives and make a huge difference. There are so many things that they could take out of this episode. What would be a profound next action for them to take besides going through your course?

The course is amazing, It’s incredible. You can also call me or email me but I think the work is just so powerful. I can’t work with people outside of California because of my license restriction. I’m only licensed in California, but that’s why I designed the course. I have I think 55 people on it now.

That’s awesome.

It’s just been out for a year. That would be the next step in this work. You can also always buy any of Pia Mellody’s books. She’s been my trainer for the last 10 years. I do all her work here in San Diego.

She’s like a cornerstone of this whole movement and the whole chair work. She’s a big deal on the space.

She’s a big deal in my eyes for sure. She’s shaped my life. This work has completely transformed my relationships and my entire life. I owe that obviously to a higher power but more so to Pia Mellody because she designed this model. She trains therapists in the model except now she’s retired, so she left it to us to pick it up and keep sending light to transform our communities, our families, our homes, and ourselves.

Which you are doing everyday.

Oh, I’m trying.

You’re doing great. You’ve changed a lot of lives. I know that.

Thank you, Stephan. It’s a pleasure.

Thank you so much, Robyn. Thank you, listeners. Now, you got to go do something powerful with this so valuable information. We’ll catch you on the next episode of Get Yourself Optimized. This is your host, Stephan Spencer, signing off.

If you love this episode, then you must listen to episode 86 with Brent Charleton, who is also an expert at chair work, and episode 173 with Bettie Spruill. I promise you will love them both. And of course, the show notes, transcript, checklist, and all the URLs mentioned in this interview with Robyn Firtel are on

Important Links

Checklist of Actionable Takeaways

?Take responsibility for my own healing. There are methods that I can use to deal with trauma and reprogram my brain to produce a positive outcome.

?Provide a good childhood for my children. Help them to become good and capable human beings in the future.

?Research chair work and try it out if it seems like it could help me resolve my issues.

?Be careful of codependency. According to Robyn, codependency in caretaking is where one person needs their ego boosted or to have power over their partner.

?Don’t be a martyr or a doormat. Don’t let others make me feel inferior by their words and actions. Let this be an open discussion where I can express my feelings genuinely.

?Be patient. Don’t keep pushing myself when I’m not ready. Healing is a long and continuous journey. It will not be achieved in one day.

?Set boundaries. Sometimes, when I say no to others, I say yes to myself.

?Stop the blame game. Eventually, there will be no one left to blame, not even myself. All my energy should focus on my healing.

?Beware of excessive self-empowerment. Always be accountable for my actions and refrain from feeling entitled.

?Check out Robyn Firtel’s website for more information about her mission and her workshops.

About Robyn Firtel

San Diego Psychotherapist Robyn Firtel is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist and is also a certified Parenting Expert. Robyn continued her education being trained by world-renowned co-dependency pioneer Pia Mellody. She specializes in Post Induction Therapy, which treats codependency, addiction, trauma, and relationships.

Disclaimer: The medical, fitness, psychological, mindset, lifestyle, and nutritional information provided on this website and through any materials, downloads, videos, webinars, podcasts, or emails is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical/fitness/nutritional advice, diagnoses, or treatment. Always seek the help of your physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, certified trainer, or dietitian with any questions regarding starting any new programs or treatments, or stopping any current programs or treatments. This website is for information purposes only, and the creators and editors, including Stephan Spencer, accept no liability for any injury or illness arising out of the use of the material contained herein, and make no warranty, express or implied, with respect to the contents of this website and affiliated materials.


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