Creating Space for Happiness: The Secret of Giving Room

Creating Space for Happiness: The Secret of Giving Room

by Anthony J. Castro

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Five days a week, seven-year-old Holly awakens promptly at six. She ensures that her five-year-old sister is washed, fed and dressed, and then she prepares breakfast for her single mother. With military precision and a gut-wrenching sense of responsibility beyond her years, Holly follows a strict regimen in an attempt to avoid the wrath of her abusive mother. She

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Five days a week, seven-year-old Holly awakens promptly at six. She ensures that her five-year-old sister is washed, fed and dressed, and then she prepares breakfast for her single mother. With military precision and a gut-wrenching sense of responsibility beyond her years, Holly follows a strict regimen in an attempt to avoid the wrath of her abusive mother. She never knows whether she will encounter "nice mommy or mean mommy," and only when she and her sister are safely at school does she begin to breathe easily.
Holly’s story is one of many that Dr. Anthony J. Castro relates in this unique approach to sharing psychological insights and offering guidelines for making difficult changes to tackle problems that threaten our well-being. The theme of this insightful book is "giving room." Weaving a tapestry of vignettes from patients’ intimate lives with excerpts from scientific studies and examples from his own life, Dr. Castro demonstrates how all of us must learn to give ourselves room to enter into the unknown and endure change. Though change is often very hard, Dr. Castro shows through the experiences of his patients that by giving room to ourselves we unleash the potential for immense personal growth.
Some of his patients need to assert independence from their parents; others must learn to develop a mutually respectful marriage or to become wise parents. In all cases, Dr. Castro underscores that only by making room for our own needs can we then reach out to others to create healthy relationships. With a gift for interlacing important insights with engrossing real-life stories to illustrate salient points about growth and change, Dr. Castro offers an enlightening, jargon-free narrative that will encourage readers of all ages to take the time to create the happiness they deserve.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Finally! A self-help book that keeps the reader engaged from start to finish! Dr. Castro’s novel approach of weaving such captive and applicable vignettes all the way through his easy to understand life lessons is both informative and entertaining. Read this book and your life will improve by learning the secret of giving room. Creating Space for Happiness works…make it work for you."
—Kelly Perdew, Managing Director, Angel Venture Partners, Winner, Season 2 of NBC’s
The Apprentice, and Author of Take Command: 10 Leadership Principles I
Learned in the Military and Put to Work for Donald Trump

"Engaging…Castro offers several principles—organized around the theme of ‘giving room’—that readers can use to understand and improve their lives and relationships. Many parents should find this book to be especially interesting and helpful."
—Scott R. Harris, Associate Professor of Sociology, Saint Louis University,
Author of The Meanings of Marital Equality

"Dr. Castro presents a sound and practical approach for coping with personal life experiences that can stunt our ability to grow. By the interweaving of clinical vignettes and his own life experiences, Creating Space for Happiness shows us ways to give ourselves room to grow. It is one of those rare books that can give us power to transform lives and even save them."
—Ed Garcia, MD, Chairman, Department of Psychiatry,
St. John's Mercy Medical Center, St. Louis, Missouri

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Prometheus Books
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creating space for HAPPINESS

the secret of GIVING ROOM

By Anthony J. Castro
Prometheus Books
Copyright © 2009

Anthony J. Castro
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-668-6



Winter sleet and rain pound the rickety fifty-year-old apartment complex in Southside Philly. Its wooden shutters barely hang on, clinging to the mud-red brick siding like driftwood being tossed on a stormy sea. The wind howls as Holly kicks at the door of Unit 2, her home. This rarely happens. She again reaches into the pocket of her backpack and unzips the secret compartment in the bottom right corner. Searching, searching, but still no key! Tears roll down her cheeks as Holly again retraces the regimented, daily steps in her mind....

* * *

The alarm clock sounds at 6:00 a.m. Quickly, though she is still half-asleep, Holly heads for the kitchen. She methodically begins pouring the coffee grounds into the coffee machine filter, then adds the water and presses the start button. Mother's coffee will be ready in no time. Next, she pops a few slices of bread into the toaster oven for herself and her sister, Katie. A sliced bagel is tossed in for her mother. Her cat, Sunny, is next. She cleans out the litter box, refills her food bowl, and gives her fresh water. On the kitchen table, Katie and Holly's homework is scattered. Like a veteran assembly-line worker at an automotive plant, Holly organizes her sister's homework. She knows her sister's daily schedule at school to a tee: first numbers, then letters, then there is story time. Holly throws her own books and assignments haphazardly into her backpack and heads for the bathroom. She rushes through her grooming ritual: wash the face, brush the teeth, comb the hair, and throw on some clothes. Holly then allows herself to go to the bathroom.

Katie is then awakened. It's 6:40 a.m. As Holly departs their bedroom, she barks the usual commands: "Clothes, socks, and shoes are at the bottom of bed. Get dressed and get in the bathroom." Back in the kitchen, she butters the toast, wraps it carefully in a washcloth, and shoves it into her pocket. Holly hears Katie fumbling around in the bedroom. All it takes to get Katie back on track is a stern look from her big sister. Mother's bagel is placed on a plate and strawberry jam and butter are applied. Not too much jam! Mother doesn't like too much jam. Mother's coffee is then prepared. Exactly two and one-half teaspoons of sugar. No milk. No cream.

Holly glances down at her wristwatch, suddenly alarmed that twenty minutes have elapsed since waking her sister. "That's impossible! It should only be 6:56 a.m., not 7:00 a.m.!" she worries aloud. Holly knows she is on the clock now and running dangerously late. Forced to rush through the final and most delicate of steps in her morning ritual, Holly stops abruptly in the middle of the hallway. Like a boxer trying to pump up for a prizefight, Holly aggressively rubs her face with both hands, then shakes out her hands and arms. Slowly she begins to tiptoe toward her mother's bedroom. She twists the doorknob and it squeaks; Holly freezes, her whole body cringing. Mother moans but fortunately doesn't wake. The stench from the room is overwhelming, a combination of her mother not showering for a week, cigarette smoke, and the half-eaten pizza, moldering on the bedside table.

Holly taps her mother on the shoulder and whispers in her ear, "Mommy, your coffee and bagel are ready." Her mother doesn't move. Holly whispers louder, "Mommy, your coffee and bagel are ready." Her mother begins to stir. Now is the moment of truth. Holly's heart races and sweat beads her little brow. Which Mommy will it be this time? Nice Mommy? The Mommy who reads to us, sings songs with us, and hugs us? The Mommy who tells me she loves me? The Mommy who says I'm a big girl and that she is proud of me? Or will it be Mean Mommy, who hits us, calls us names, and, worst of all, the Mommy who stays in her room and doesn't come out for days? Lately, it's been rough. Holly and Katie have been living with "Mean Mommy" for several weeks now.

Mother's puffy eyelids slowly rise; her face is blank. Holly braces herself. After ten seconds of her mother's frozen expression, Holly's heart begins to sink. But look! Suddenly, a slight smile plays across Mother's lips. Holly promptly but carefully smiles back, gently repeating, "Mommy, your coffee and bagel are ready. Katie and I must leave now for school." Mother nods her head in a caring and reassuring manner. Feeling good vibes from Mommy, Holly takes a bold, very bold, chance. "Oh, and Mommy? Don't forget that today is Wednesday, February 2, and you have that job interview at the cleaners at 9:30 this morning. I ironed that pretty red dress for you last night. It's over there in the corner." Again, Holly braces herself. Mommy continues to nod and smile and softly says, "Thank you."

Love fills her heart as Holly goes back on the clock. She heads rapidly down the hallway and into the kitchen. Katie, all ready to go and sporting backpack and winter attire, is sitting in the kitchen chair closest to the front door. Immediately, Holly's and Katie's eyes meet. Words need not be spoken as Katie's eyes ask the familiar question: Nice Mommy or Mean Mommy? Holly nods her head and smiles. Katie quickly smiles back. "Let's go," Holly instructs in a confident manner. As Holly closes the front door, the biting winter wind whips across her face. She glances at her watch: 7:20 a.m. Removing the toast from her pocket, she hands Katie her piece. "Katie, go a little faster today; we're running behind." Katie nods. Holly zips her coat all the way to the top, flips up her hood, and jams her hands in her pockets. The hour-long journey to school begins....

* * *

"That's it! I remember!" Holly exclaims. Katie looks at her sister with renewed hope. "Did you find the key? It's freezing out here!" Although the key's whereabouts is no longer a mystery, Holly's heart sinks. She knows she will be unable to open the door. In a trancelike monotone, she explains, "The key is on the hook in the kitchen. Mommy should be home in fifteen minutes to let us in." Katie begins to whimper. Although Holly's expression doesn't change, her little seven-year-old body is filled with nausea and anger-anger at herself. You're smarter than that, Holly Smith! Her brain won't let her off the hook. You know your LAST task in the morning is to grab the key from the kitchen hook! Holly turns around, walks over to her sister, and guides her to sit between her legs on the top step. Holly holds Katie tight and rocks her back and forth in a soothing manner.

She croons in Katie's ear, "Everything will be okay! When Mommy gets home, you'll go straight to our room and change out of your wet clothes. Put your pj's on and practice your numbers. I'll come to get you when dinner is ready." Although the day started out promising, Holly now knows it is going to end horribly. The rage her mother unleashes whenever her daughters are locked out of the apartment is predictable. But Mother's anger never stems from worry about Holly and Katie being out in the nasty weather, cold and hungry; nor does it come from frustration or guilt about not being home to greet her daughters when they return from school. Mother's fury does not even disguise sadness or regret for not coming up with alternative ways for her girls to enter the apartment. No, her anger is all about embarrassment and fear. These thoughts ran through Holly's mind as she and Katie quietly sat on the front stoop, shivering, waiting for Mother to arrive. Holly knows only too well what to expect. "God help you two damn brats if the neighbors ever saw you out here. You'd just love that, now, wouldn't you! You'd like nothing better than for that nosy bitch Mrs. Blanner to call DFS one more time! Maybe next time will be your lucky day, and they'll take you from me, and you'll never see me again, EVER!" Holly's self-castigating anger continues to build in her young brain, giving her no room. Damn you, Holly! Damn you! You can't even remember to bring the house key!


As a rookie psychotherapist, I learned pretty quickly one of life's harshest truths: People don't like to change! Sad but true, change is something most people steer clear of. Much research over the years backs up this "fight against change" and reveals that the average number of times an individual attends a first therapy session is less than one! It seems that after they make the phone call and schedule the first appointment, many people simply don't even show up! Now that's resistance!

I often communicate this fundamental problem to my clients very early in treatment. As I explain that the odds are against them to realize real positive growth, most patients nod their heads and smile, and I know they're thinking: Oh, sure, but I'm different. I'm enthusiastic about changing! I'm hurting too much inside; I am ready to embrace change! And I'm paying you damn good money, so I BETTER change! Although I always present this caveat, I make sure to end the session on an optimistic note. Some people return, willing to work on changing, and the therapeutic process works over time. Others stay stuck in their behaviors, and no matter how wonderful a therapist you are, the person's emotional struggles stay engrained.

Doing something new or in a different way is always difficult. From infancy throughout our entire lives, we resist change. The young child apprehensively rocks back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, in an almost hypnotic rhythm, so hesitant is she to crawl for the first time. The five-year-old clings to her mother's side, biting vigorously on her Winnie the Pooh shirt as they enter the kindergarten classroom for the first time. "Mommy, please just stay with me!" she pleads, as tears stream down her face. The grungy-looking, nervous high school sophomore paces outside the school two weeks before the first formal dance, so anxious is he to get up the nerve to ask cute little Susie to accompany him. At age thirty-two, the promising young college graduate, a mere ten years out of school, finds that the only real excitement in her life is complaining with colleagues about their dead-end jobs and burying that frustration and depression every Friday and Saturday evening at happy hour. And then there is the ubiquitous codependent partner who, for thirty years, has continued to suffer the vicious cycle of her narcissistic husband, who violently dumps his empty feelings of worthlessness on her through verbal degradation and physical abuse. The typical makeup period following these abusive episodes passes like clockwork, and the storm hits again and again. Doing something different would be very, very difficult. Most people do not like change.

As human beings, our natural tendency is not to take that bold step into the unknown of change. Patterns are set early in life, and as we move through the developmental stages, we sometimes feel like passengers on a runaway train, unable to brake or change the train's direction. Temporary changes may occur. We say, "It's time for my New Year's resolution! I'm going to lose fifty pounds!" Yet too often in this day and age true lasting change just doesn't stick. Of course, it's not simply "normal development" that hinders change and positive growth in life. Other circumstances, trauma, for example, lock in our paralytic states of being.

Sometime within the first thirty minutes of meeting a client, I usually ask, "Now this might seem like a weird question, but has there ever been any type of traumatic experience that has occurred in your life? You know, something that you might look back on and say, 'Yeah, that was really bad, that was really unexpected, that was really awful?'" Do you know why I use the word weird? Webster's dictionary defines weird as "suggesting the operation of supernatural influences." To me, the word weird is esoteric and vague. When clients hear the words weird question, an uneasy, mysterious feeling is immediately triggered, yet because of the ineffable nature of the word, it leaves room for the clients to search their memory banks for intense feelings that may be hidden by their history.

Some clients blow off the question and say, "No, nothing really comes to mind." But others will ponder the question. At such times, the mood in the room changes as tales of dysfunctional relationships, abuse, medical issues, and many other troubling events come tumbling out. Very often, it doesn't take a clinical psychologist to put two and two together. Clearly, many of those traumatic events and situations are seriously impacting people's current level of happiness. The connection of the past to the present is often clear to clients as well. In frustration, one will gasp, "I know my father's death during my adolescence impacted how I relate to men! I just can't fix it!" Or with a smirk, a client will respond with a sense of accomplishment, "Dr. Castro, don't you find it interesting that I was attacked by a vicious dog when I was five and yet now, as an adult, I am the owner of a dog-training facility? I just love dogs!" Childhood trauma can impact one's adulthood in many ways that aren't always negative. Paralysis, fear, and loss can be one individual's avenue to a thriving business. Of course, Freudians would say that my dog trainer is experiencing a "reaction formation," but I like to think of it as an expression of the indomitable human spirit.


It's clear that our inability to remember everything about our past, whether riddled with trauma or not, often impedes healthy psychological growth. Doesn't it make sense that if one could remember past experiences in a more clear and rational way (without the pain, frustration, fear, anger, and other emotions that surround them), it would be helpful to use those events as springboards to future growth? Then maybe we wouldn't always make the same mistake twice, three times, four times, and on and on through life! As the old saying goes, "If someone lets you down and breaks your trust, shame on them. If that same person does it twice, shame on you!" Remembering our past in a constructive and meaningful way-not in an obsessive or self-destructive way-would inspire all of us to make better choices in life. Our relationships would be healthier and our self-esteem would flourish.

Every day in my office I ask my first-time clients for some information about their childhood: "So if I was looking down on you and your family when you were a kid during dinnertime, what would it be like? Who would be present? Who would be talking? Who would be silent?" Or I ask something more traditional during a psychological intake, such as "How would you describe your mother and father as you were growing up?" and "Tell me about their marriage."

Much has been written over the years about the struggle with time and memory when it comes to childhood development, and it isn't surprising that I struggle to remember the names of my grade school teachers. Yet, the few things I do remember remain crystal-clear in my mind to this day. Whether you remember all of your childhood or very little, there are important moments or experiences that shape who you are today and affect your capacity to change.

Take, for example, Eric, a forty-one-year-old patient who has a vivid childhood memory of his mother sitting him down at the kitchen table, pointing her index finger in his face, and screaming, "All men are shit!" When Eric's father got home from work, his mother would complain to him about how badly Eric had behaved. This led to Eric's father barging into his room with belt in hand, another childhood incident Eric remembers clearly. It is not surprising that Eric struggles to connect with other men and has no male friends.

However, Eric also has memories of his violin lessons with a sweet old man named Mr. Thomas. Eric begins to tear up when he tells me, "Mr. Thomas would pat my back and tell me I had a gift for music and that he was proud of me." Today, Eric is one of the most accomplished violinists in the Midwest.

The pioneers on the study of impact of memory are the psychoanalytic theorists who described the importance of defense mechanisms. Freud first introduced the concept of defenses (he used the word repression interchangeably with defense) in 1894 as a kind of trick the mind plays to protect us from inappropriate wishes and to keep these taboo thoughts and feelings in the unconscious. Freud's daughter, Anna, in 1936 expanded on the idea of defenses when she wrote the classic book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Rather than expound on the phenomenon of repression that her father brought to light, Anna Freud detailed specific defense mechanisms such as denial, projection, and-my personal favorite-"undoing." In a very simple and general way, defense mechanisms were seen, and still are seen, as a way for the mind to protect us from intense, powerful feelings and memories, as well as personal shortcomings.


Excerpted from creating space for HAPPINESS by Anthony J. Castro Copyright © 2009 by Anthony J. Castro. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Anthony J. Castro (St. Louis, MO) is a clinical psychologist who treats young children, adolescents, adults, and couples. An expert in the field of adult and child psychology, Dr. Castro frequently speaks before audiences of parents, colleagues, and teachers in the St. Louis community.

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