Gottman Method, Relationships / Couples Therapy

Are You ‘Flooded’ During an Argument?

March 10, 2017


During a conflict with your partner you might be sprouting things you would not normally say, behaving in ways that feel out of control or feel a flight, freeze or flight response. After observing couples for decades Dr. John Gottman concluded that many individuals get  emotionally “flooded”. What this means is that your heart-rate has gone anywhere between 80-100 beats per minute and up. You are likely driven by your limbic system which is the primal part of your brain, your nervous system is activated and productive conflict management is near impossible. Imagine trying to manage conflict while doing an intense cardiovascular workout or while escaping a dangerous situation. Your nervous system is overwhelmed and is responding by driving you to escape, shut down or fight the enemy. In other words your problem solving higher-self is getting hijacked by the primal part of your brain. Research shows that the central nervous system needs at least 20-30 minutes to return to a state of equilibrium. You might need more time, if you have a history of trauma or other conditions. If you have had a few drinks or used other substances, this may also get more challenging.

I have found that many couples appreciate developing an awareness around this and have found it relieving to both identify signs of emotional flooding as well as managing it as a team.

Here are some signs of emotional flooding:

  • Heart-rate is over 80-100 beats per minute. Depending on how fit you are, this may be lower. You can track your heart rate by checking your own pulse and timing it with a clock or if you’re really motivated you can purchase a heart monitor.
  • Shallow breathing in the chest
  • Muscles tightening
  • Tongue rises to top of your mouth
  • Looking away from partner with a desire to leave the scene
  • Tunnel vision
  • Drive to flight, fight or freeze.
  • Unable to hear what your partner’s saying
  • Impulsive responses
  • A sense of overwhelm, of losing a sense boundaries or a sense that you’ve lost control.

Some ways to un-flood:

  • Deep, slow belly breaths
  • A soothing distraction
  • Physical activity like a walk, run, stretches etc
  • Mindfulness practices
  • Listening to music
  • Taking space or time to yourself.
  • Use of biofeedback technology. If you have a smartphone, this Heart+Coherence App is able to track your heart rate and guide you to breathe so you develop coherence. Coherence means that your breath is effectively affecting your nervous system.

Things you can do as a couple:

  • Understand what the usual triggers are for yourself and your partner.
  • Adjust to each other’s needs a little more. This may mean, watching your volume, tone, gestures or saying things in a gentler way by avoiding harsh start-ups around sensitive or highly contentious issues.
  • Come up with a plan. It may take a couple of experiments to see what will work when one or both of you gets emotionally flooded.
  • Figure out a way to communicate to each other that you are close to or are already flooded? This may be different for both of you.
  • Have an agreement that you need the time to unflood and you will have different needs. Some will need space, while others need to feel your partner’s presence (this will have to be negotiated).
  • Have an agreement to return to managing the conflict. This is an important piece as learning to repair or build trust after a fight are valuable skills.

Emotional flooding is a common phenomenon in many relationships. Recognizing what triggers them, when it happens and learning how to unflood will support you in having more effective conflict management.


ADHD, General, Relationships / Couples Therapy, Transactional Analysis

‘Parent’-‘Child’ Traps in Adult ADHD Relationships

August 11, 2016

When the bills have piled up, the keys are nowhere to be found and promises are not fulfilled the relationship can tense up quickly. The non-ADHD partner can feel resentful of “always” having to caretake without gratitude. It can feel as if it’s all about the ADHD person’s needs and their own needs get neglected.

The non-ADHD partner can start behaving in parental ways…
1. Rescuing/ fixing and taking over.
2. Criticizing, judging and reprimanding

The ADHD partner can…
1. Feel child-like, infanticised, judged, controlled or suffocated.
2. Start to over rely on and take their partner for granted.

It unfortunately can end up looking like an unsustainable parent-child relationship where one is caretaking and controlling while the other is dependant and suffocated. Resentment can build up pretty quickly on both ends.

How do we break out of a parent-child trap?

Tips for the ADHD partner:

#1 Take the time to ask your partner how they feel & validate them.
Recognize that your ADHD has an effect on your partner. In their world they could be witnessing chaos, scattered ideas and broken promises. Your behaviors could be triggering anxiety in others around you. They are rescuing and caretaking to help contain the chaos.

#2 Set boundaries.
Be clear about what you want and don’t want your partner doing or saying. Let them know you do not want their help or that you don’t appreciate the judgement.

#3 Make an effort to fulfill your partner’s needs, wants and dreams.
ADHD symptoms can take up a lot of space in the relationship. Shifting the balance and paying attention to what your partner needs can help you break out of the parent-child dynamic.

Tips for the non-ADHD partner:

#1 Set boundaries.
Be clear about what you want to do to help. Avoid crossing your own limits and feeling like you “have” to help. Say “no” when you need to. Help only when it’s appreciated and only when you truly want to.

#2 Avoid criticism, controlling behavior and contempt.
Talk instead about how an unfulfilled promise or a messy kitchen makes you feel and what you need/want to see happen.

#3 Be assertive.
Your needs are important TOO! Talk about your needs and ask for them to be met in a positive way.

Finding ways to equalize the relationship, respecting that you are both adults that can make choices is key. You were attracted to each other’s differences in the first place so love the other for who they are. Trying to make the other more like yourself is a fruitless project to take on.


Therapist for Black Lives #blacklivesmatter

July 8, 2016

“Black Lives Matter” began as a hashtag on Twitter in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death. As a therapist, I began asking myself questions about how the field of psychotherapy can play a role in supporting the Black community as it fights for change. While psychotherapists discuss issues of race-based trauma and resilience building we may be missing an important piece. The bigger question is: How has the field played a role in marginalizing specific communities of color and more specifically, the Black community?

There was a recent article by KQED entitled Mental Health Study: Sorry, I’m Not Accepting New (Black or Poor) Patients which brought to light some very disturbing issues.

“Previous research has shown that psychotherapists have a preference to treat clients they perceive to be verbal, intelligent, and “psychologically minded,” in other words, people who are like them. Another study found that psychiatrists perceive black patients as “less articulate, competent, [and] introspective” compared to white patients.”

As a therapist who serves Black clients and identifies as a queer POC immigrant, the article was beyond painful to read. I have had to genuinely reflect on our therapist profession as a whole and consider some excruciating realities. Being silent could mean having complicity in a wider system that violently and fatally targets Black individuals.

So this amplifies the question: How do we as therapists in the SF Bay Area support #BlackLivesMatter? I think the question picks at the scabs of a terrible history. A history that few mental health clinicians consider. Over the last century the field has systematically perpetuated and discriminated against the Black community.(Read here) . From diagnosis to treatment, racial biases have haunted the field. For example, once upon a time the Euro-American psychological field believed that race determined level of intelligence. Black individuals have been over-diagnosed and misdiagnosed because they were viewed from the dominant Euro-American perspective (Read Here). Rather than examining the inter-cultural relationship between a Euro-American centric mental health system and Black communities, the field has instead a history of being ethnocentric in viewing other cultures. It has also ignored the confounding variable of dominant cultural privilege (or White privilege) when observing clients of color. All this has systematically contributed to marginalizing Black communities.

What is more challenging to consider is how race and class play a role in terms of how a person gets access to mental health treatment. How do we even begin to address this gap in mental health resources?

Considering our history as a field today, are we continuing to look at mental health from a racially-biased standpoint? YES. My sense is that we are far from racism free. Unless we continually have more honest self-reflection as individuals and as an entire field of mental health practitioners, we will be far from a “post-racism” mental health system. The mental health system continues to perpetuate racism towards the Black community and our ongoing denial does more harm than good. It might even be ongoing, systematic, racial aggression which we unconsciously participate in. How do we begin considering racism’s effect on how we assess, diagnose and treat? There may not be immediate answers but we have got to keep exploring, self-reflecting and continually bring these unconscious processes to light.

Several mental health boards have made a precise effort to put out statements in regards to #BlackLivesMatter. The AFTA has made a beautiful statement and I wish to quote:

Why the Black Lives Matter Movement Should Matter to Members of AFTA and to all Mental Health Professionals

We enter therapeutic relationships with preconceived, often subjective ideas of normal and abnormal, functional and dysfunctional, rooted in our racial, cultural and social contexts. The experience of racial privilege can lead to a universal assumption that all people and races have similar experiences and opportunities. Diagnostic assessments and research practices are far from immune to these influences and assumptions.

Assumptions based in White privilege are present in psychotherapy regardless of the setting or the social status of the participants; from private practices to agencies serving clients of lower socio-economic class. Therapy is not conducted in a vacuum. In addition to the personal history and present situation of each family and individual, therapy is influenced by the intersecting, multidimensional contexts that include the social systems and cultural identities of privilege, race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, education, sexual orientation and gender identity addressed by Black Lives Matter as it affirms the lives of Black people and challenges the dehumanization of the Black community.”

I do not have all the answers but I know that it is so vital to be a Queer Asian clinician who stands in solidarity with the Black community, my Black clients and my Black peers in the field. I want to be an ally and I know I need to do so with humility and be open to change in myself and in my work.


General, LGBTQ

FREE Queer Therapist Support & Consult Group #weareorlando

June 17, 2016

Cheryl Leong, MFT is offering a FREE ($000) support and consult group for queer-identified therapists in the SF Bay Area who want support around personal and professional reactions to the Orlando shooting. This will be an arts-based support group so you have the option of using both verbal and non-verbal expression

11am to 1.30pm,
June 25th 2016, Saturday (Morning of SF Dyke March)

Active Space Building
3150 18th Street
Unit 343
SF CA 94110

Building is at the corner of 18th and Treat, Entrance is on Treat. Dial 343 to get buzzed in.

(Food and Drink is welcome) this is a fully confidential group and it is requested that client information is minimized and the focus is on our personal and professional reactions to the work. If you are an intern therapist please check in with your supervisor before registering for the group.

Maximum of 8 participants. To REGISTER please email with the following information:

1. Name and Therapist License # or Intern #
2. What is motivating you to participate.
3. Your email and phone contact.

LGBT, Transactional Analysis

Staying ‘OK’ in the Face of Discriminatory Bills

April 7, 2016

More than 30 anti-lgbt bills are fighting to pass in 2016. We are already seeing the first few discriminatory bills pass.

I see how these bills are affecting lgbt emotional health. A sense of sadness, anger or fear are normal emotional reactions to discrimination. More than ever skills around resilience, self care and relationship communication skills need to strengthen.

From a Transactional Analysis perspective these bills are essentially a painful form of DISCOUNTING. It is a discount of an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation. The child ego state holds one’s sexuality and feelings around gender. The pain of feeling this discount can sometimes be beyond words and could potentially shape how we decide to perceive the others and ourselves. Maintaining an I’m OK and You’re Ok existential position can be challenging as such experiences can regress us back to early wounds and early painful script decisions.

Don’t stay alone with your thoughts and feelings. Reach out to friends, community resources or a therapist. Knowing you can DECIDE to continue being OK in the face of adversary and discrimination is a gift.

Try the following Affirmations:

I have a right to my gender identity/sexual orientation
I Love me
I will live through this
I will seek support
I have a right to survive
I have a right to exist as me

Transactional Analysis

Beyond Stroke Filters (A Neo-Bernian Idea)

February 19, 2016

Eric Berne is known for coining the term “strokes”. He explained it as a basic unit of recognition. It was believed that human beings were born with an innate stimulus hunger. Experiments in the 1940s suggested that infants failed to thrive in environments where physical stimulation was limited. This hunger for touch develops to become a hunger for recognition in social and intimate relationships.

These were the types of strokes that Eric Berne described.

Internal strokes (strokes we give ourselves)
External strokes (strokes we give to others)
Unconditional strokes (strokes for being)
Conditional strokes (strokes for doing)
Positive strokes (strokes that communicate okayness)
Negative strokes (strokes that communicate not-okayness)

Claude Steiner is known for theorizing the ‘stroke economy’. He suggests that we can be restricted by the parent ego state in five main ways:

don’t give strokes when we have them to give
don’t ask for strokes when we need them
don’t accept strokes if we want them
don’t reject strokes when we don’t want them
don’t give ourselves strokes

These five ‘rules’ reinforce a culture of scarcity as opposed to how limitless strokes can be given and received. I once encountered someone from a chaotic household and that led to him making an early decision to “trust no one to care”. His script believes were entrenched in ideas of stroke scarcity and that happy interactions were close to impossible. I invited him to take on a little experiment for the week. He would try for 7 days every morning to smile at one person on the way to work on the bus. To his astonishment, people smiled back! There were no threats, exchanges or bartering. The strokes were limitless.

TA literature describes the ‘stroke filter’ as a contaminated Adult ego state process where the person chooses to interpret positive strokes as negative ones. This maintains their particular life position.


This write-up suggests a clear way to facilitate for clients to understand how their life scripting (early decisions about themselves and the world) might affect their Adult ego state functioning. The Adult ego state might be processing strokes in 4 different ways:

Stroke Maximizing:

Processing the intended stroke as much more important or significant than intended. An individual could take a simple greeting smile from another as a sign of sexual flirtation. Or an individual could take a piece of Adult negative feedback as a Critical Parent insult.

Brian was regularly playing some ‘kick me’ games at dance night clubs. His eyes would scan the room for attractive women who would respond to his smile. He would interpret each smile as a green light for close contact dancing or an invitation for intimate conversation. Often the women would interpret his behavior as inappropriate.

Stroke Minimizing:

Processing the intended stroke as less important or significant than intended. An individual could downplay a compliment or ignore the significance of a negative complaint.

Sam had an ‘under-achieving’ life script. His early decision to not succeed led to him to perpetually discount his personal intelligence and abilities. Each time a colleague complimented his ability he would minimize its significance in his mind. “They are just being nice.”

Stroke Converting:

An individual could take a negative stroke and interpret it as positive or take a positive stroke and interpret it as negative. For example, an individual could take a compliment as a reminder of how they are not-ok.

Susie was constantly nervous about her appearance. Nothing ever felt enough for the world- even if she was told otherwise. She always had make up on even when she went to bed. Her husband tried to tell her he loved her but all she could think was- “he wouldn’t love me without the make up”. “Don’t be you or else…”- she continually told herself. Her husband’s unconditional positive strokes were converted as conditional strokes and further processed as negative strokes.

Stroke Selecting:

An individual could select the strokes they want to absorb and the ones they want reject.

Grace an employee got her first employee appraisal and all she chose to hear were the negative strokes. She decided she was a terrible worker even after her manager had a ton of positive feedback to offer as well.

Bringing these ‘stroke processors’ to the awareness of the client can be effective for decontaminating the adult ego state. It can allow for an exploration of the life script, early stroking patterns and early decisions. It can more importantly be an invitation for clients to make new autonomous decisions about how they want to “process” strokes in the here and now.

Relationships / Couples Therapy

Honor Your Partner’s Dream

December 4, 2015

Relationship therapy tip of the day- According to leading relationship researchers at the Gottman Institute folks in long term relationships (gay or straight) of 3 decades and more do this: They are curious and validate each other’s deepest dreams. If you haven’t asked already, ask your spouse/parter what that dream is and then honour it with all your love.