Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice: True Stories of Therapy and Transformation

Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice: True Stories of Therapy and Transformation


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Many people grapple with destructive thought processes or a "critical inner voice" that directs their behavior and, to varying degrees, limits their lives. Using deeply personal and very human stories based on his own clinical practice, noted psychologist Robert W. Firestone illustrates the struggles of his clients to give words to this "enemy within," and in the process overcome its damaging influence. These revealing and captivating stories offer glimpses into the uniquely human relationship that develops in the therapeutic encounter and demonstrate the powerful impact that the experience has on both client and therapist.

Dr. Firestone is the originator of a therapeutic method called "Voice Therapy," by which clients learn to identify the language of the defense system and eventually separate their own point of view from its harmful effects. Each story provides an intimate look into one person's life, illuminates aspects of his or her "dark side," and highlights an important insight into the therapeutic process.

This sensitively written book will evoke emotional responses in readers, and inspire them to take action to challenge the dictates of their own inner critic. Taken together, these stories underscore the distinctive merits and continuing relevance of the therapeutic process, especially in our distracted, technological world increasingly detached from feeling.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633882515
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 12/06/2016
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 774,434
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Robert W. Firestone, PhD, psychologist and author, has been affiliated with the Glendon Association as its consulting theorist since its inception. His innovative ideas related to psychotherapy, couple and family relationships, suicide, parenting, and existential issues have been the inspiration and cornerstone of Glendon's research and publications.
From 1957 to 1979, Dr. Firestone was engaged in the private practice of psychotherapy as a clinical psychologist working with a wide range of patients. From that time up to the present he has worked with high-functioning individuals in group settings, amplifying his original ideas on schizophrenia and applying these concepts to a comprehensive theory of neurosis.
Dr. Firestone's studies on negative thought processes and their associated effects have led to the development of Voice Therapy, an advanced therapeutic methodology to uncover and contend with aspects of self-destructive and self-limiting behaviors.
Dr. Firestone is the author of many books, most recently The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation, with Lisa Firestone and Joyce Catlett.

Read an Excerpt

Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice

True Stories of Therapy and Transformation

By Robert W. Firestone

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2016 Robert W. Firestone
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-252-2



I was a serious twenty-three-year-old graduate student, anxious to complete my education and to get to work in my chosen field. I had started out in a pre-med program, but during my second year at Syracuse University I made the transition to psychology. The decision was fortunate for humanity because I had managed to butcher many frogs and other specimens along the way in my anatomy courses. Ever since making that choice, I had been completely absorbed in everything pertaining to my future as a psychotherapist.

At twenty-three, I already had my master's degree in clinical psychology and was close to getting my PhD. At the time that this story begins, I was part of a study group whose members were feverishly working in final preparation for our comprehensive examinations. We spent all of our daylight hours together, accumulating and reviewing information on virtually every aspect of the field of psychology. Cramming for the test gave our lives a narrow focus, and we existed in a constant state of agitation. After a while, the young men and women surrounding me seemed almost drugged, lethargic from sleepless nights spent studying or just plain worrying. I knew I must have looked the same to them. I joked that the ordeal we clinical psychology students were put through to qualify for our doctorates was likely to cause permanent damage to our psyches and would probably take a toll on our future performance as professionals.

Late one afternoon, I was reading in the small basement apartment that my wife and I shared. I had fallen asleep in my chair when I was awakened by a knock at the door. I thought I heard the voice of an old college friend from Syracuse, Howard Brodsky. I had met Howard several years before; he was a close friend of my roommate and we had all hung out together. I found him likable and fun but had lost track of him when I moved out West.

When I opened the door, I was actually surprised to find that I had been mistaken. Standing there was a member of my study group who had come by to borrow some notes. As I returned to my book, I wondered why I had even thought it could be Brodsky, because I hadn't seen him for over four years. The last I had heard, he was working on a shrimp boat somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, so there was absolutely no reason to expect him in Denver, Colorado.

One hour later, there was another knock at the door. This time it was Brodsky. I had little time to appreciate the amazing coincidence. It took only a quick glimpse of his demeanor to determine that Howard was in serious trouble. I motioned him into our small living room and offered him a seat.

"Howard, what's the matter?" I asked. "Try to talk to me."

There was no reply, just a stony silence. He looked toward me with his big, brown eyes. It was more of a vacant stare than a sign of recognition.

I attempted to establish verbal contact, but my efforts proved futile. I changed my tack.

"Look, Howard, you can stay here for a while, until you feel like talking. You're welcome to camp in our living room. I'll bring in your things from the car."

He sank down into the stuffed sofa and relaxed a little, and I went to empty his car. It was an old Chevy, very messy, filled with all kinds of paraphernalia: an assortment of canned goods, some rumpled-up clothes, various books, a long spear gun, and a high-powered rifle with ammunition. I dumped the goods in the corner of the room, disposed of the ammunition, and came over to where he sat. Holding him by the shoulders and looking straight into his eyes, I spoke in a kindly voice, "I'm sorry that you're feeling so bad. Take your time here, get some rest, and maybe tomorrow we can talk."

Then I called out to the other room, "Louise, Howard's going to stay here with us for a while. Could you get him some blankets and a pillow?"

Howard became our first houseguest and occupied the living room of our small apartment. Lying in bed late that night, Louise and I pondered his mysterious appearance at our door and my uncanny premonition of his arrival. What could this possibly mean in the larger scheme of things? I wasn't the kind of person who easily believed in extrasensory phenomena and such, but I couldn't help feeling that there was some kind of significance to my precognition. At the very least, it was an odd set of circumstances. More important, we questioned what we were going to do with this strange individual who popped up on our doorstep, and we were worried about Howard's state of mind. I knew that I would have to tackle the situation in the morning.

One thing that I understood was that my friend was hurting. I cared deeply about him and would try everything I could to help. For this reason, Howard ended up staying with us for many months, and he and I talked every day.

* * *

During the last phase of preparation for our exams, members of my study group seized on any excuse to let their minds stray from the subject matter. Burt Kahn, a conscientious student with a deep gravelly voice, interrupted my studying, "I hear you have a visitor."

I looked up from my book for a minute, "Yeah, this guy I know just dropped in on me a while back. He was a guy I knew in college, kind of an odd fellow. Actually, he came from my old neighborhood in Brooklyn."

"I hear he's a real basket case," Burt interrupted. It was his compulsive nature to probe.

"Yeah, he really is fucked up," I answered, noticing a slightly defensive tone in my voice. I generally responded like that when I sensed someone was pursuing a line of questioning in an attempt to express disapproval. I knew ahead of time where his questions would lead, and my tone of voice unconsciously reflected it.

"Shouldn't he be in a hospital or something?" he asked, and then he sat back, waiting for an answer. I thought that his prying was probably more a matter of curiosity than anything else, but he seemed argumentative and often exhibited a kind of passive aggression in matters of disagreement.

I closed my book and turned to look at him, "Burt, this guy's a friend of mine and right now he's in a lot of trouble. At this stage, I'm not about to expose him to a typical psychiatric unit. I don't like where that usually ends up. There's no goddamned respect for the patient as a human being, and I don't believe in shock therapy, or even pharmaceutical therapy, except in extreme cases."

I noticed I was becoming angry and tried to be more conciliatory, "For the time being, I'm going to try to help him as a friend, but if I can't, or if things go badly, then I'll have to resort to the hospital alternative."

My companion accepted this explanation but, as always, had the last word. "You're taking on a huge responsibility, Bob. I know I wouldn't want to get involved with this sort of thing. You'd better watch out for yourself."

Before the conversation with Burt, I hadn't thought about Howard Brodsky as a psychiatric patient; he was just a person in distress. Of course, I was aware of my friend's condition; even in those days as a graduate student I could have diagnosed him as potentially schizophrenic, verging on a catatonic state. It just wasn't the way I looked at people, and, for Brodsky, it turned out that my way of sizing up his situation amounted to his salvation.

The day after Howard arrived at my apartment, I woke up early with an uneasy feeling. I leapt out of bed and went into the living room to see how he was getting along. Howard was fast asleep and I took this as a good sign. At least he was relaxed enough in his present surroundings to get some rest. I went back to bed to catch up on my own sleep before the full day of studying; I planned to talk with him during the afternoon break.

Around noon, I came back home from the university library and found Howard sitting up on the couch in the room exactly where I had left him. Louise mentioned that he had accepted some food for breakfast but had refused to answer her questions. Strangely, his only social response for the first few days was a visible bulge in his pants caused by an erection. No matter who came into the room, whether male or female, his rising member was the only indication that he had taken notice of the visitor. This applied to the dog as well; it was a universal response.

There is a background to the penis story. When Brodsky was a teenager, his penis had been a famous landmark in Brooklyn. Apparently, it was significantly longer and had a greater circumference than most any other. It was described as a veritable salami. Guys came from the far reaches of the borough to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon and would pay good money for the privilege. Brodsky, a shy person by nature, would nevertheless succumb to the financial incentive and permit the viewing. If, for some reason, he felt reluctant, the members of his gang would loudly urge him to comply, and he would eventually submit to the peer pressure.

Association with the fellows in the neighborhood was a mixed blessing for Howard. Due to the crowded and compressed living conditions in Brooklyn, there were large numbers of teenagers in the same age range living on the same block. When a boy or girl's family life was characterized by negligence, cruelty, or derision, the street friends acted as a buffer and functioned as a kind of support group. The kids formed close relationships, had consistent daily contact, and demonstrated strong loyalty. Powerful bonds emerged, and many of the friendships lasted throughout their lives.

But, of course, life on the street was no picnic. The kids were also tough-minded, and their humor could be sadistic at times. It was a hardened, competitive atmosphere mixed with only occasional manifestations of warmth and tenderness.

Brodsky's parents were an odd sort. His mother and father were five foot and five foot two, respectively. Mr. Brodsky was a calculating and extremely aggressive businessman who had achieved remarkable success. He owned numerous buildings in Manhattan, and, in addition to these real-estate interests, he was also in the money-lending business. His mother made a fine living stealing money from his father's pockets. His old man was too miserly to share his wealth even with his own family, so they lived a more or less poverty-stricken lifestyle. This included dressing up in shabby old clothes to apply for charity at the medical center for the needy.

Howard told me another story that further illustrated both how rich and how tight his father was. "One day my father gave me the name and phone number of a girl he wanted to fix me up with. I called her up for a date, and we arranged a time for me to pick her up at her house. The girl's address was far out on Long Island. I drove and drove and finally located the community where she lived, found her street, and pulled up to her door. But it wasn't a door. It was a large gate to an estate, and when I pushed the buzzer and made my presence known, I entered the most beautiful gardens I'd ever seen. When I came up the driveway, I saw several Cadillacs parked there. There were many other obvious indications of significant wealth, including a private dock with a large yacht bobbing alongside it. The house was an amazing two-story residence that looked more like a hotel.

"Well, anyway, I had the date with the girl, who was by no means a beauty, and when I got home, I asked my father how we came to know such rich people. He answered simply, 'Oh, I lend her father money.'"

Brodsky, at five foot eight, towered over his father and was very strong. I remember one day when he was living with us, his parents came to Denver to visit him, and, in a flurry of affection and enthusiasm, he picked up his father and lifted him high above his head. The slight, wiry man was flailing around in the air, arms imploring and feet kicking, shouting, "Howie, put me down! Put me down!" It was a striking scene because of the role reversal. His father, so dominant a personality, and Brodsky, so submissive and acquiescent, had momentarily exchanged positions of power. At the time, I interpreted Brodsky's action as a sign of therapeutic progress.

Brodsky's mother was an intrusive, nagging woman who personified the stereotypical "Jewish mother." During that entire visit to Denver, she never stopped bothering her son for a minute. She was constantly telling him what to do, what not to do, straightening his clothes, fixing his hair, and generally making a nuisance of herself. Brodsky had suffered a hearing loss during the Korean War, but it became selectively exaggerated in the presence of his mother. He would do anything to block out the sound of her voice, and who could blame him?

One incident in particular suggested the insensitive emotional climate in which Howard grew up. As a child, he had a pet rabbit that he was very fond of. His mother was annoyed by the animal because she often found its droppings scattered throughout the house. The rabbit had to be destroyed. His mother's extreme insensitivity and cruelty became evident when, after killing the rabbit, she cooked it for dinner and forced Brodsky to eat it. Brodsky's sister later told me that this sadistic action had a disastrous effect on her brother. She said that his mental problems first manifested themselves soon after that event.

When Brodsky first arrived, I felt patient with my friend and didn't want to pressure him in any way. After a few days, he began to confide in me. He told me about his happy months on the shrimp boat, in spite of the hard physical labor. He had shared a camaraderie with the other fishermen and a love for the sea. Then he spoke of a letter he had received from his father, telling him that he was a no-good bum and that he should come home and be a "mensch" (a responsible and good Jewish boy). The note went on to mention that he was disgracing his family by working as a common laborer. The last lines of the letter had the most-damaging effect: "If you were any good, you would be going to college like the other boys instead of wasting your time. You don't care how this makes us look. I hope you know you are killing your mother."

Howard described how he became confused and felt guilty after reading the letter. His mind was besieged by a tormenting stream of destructive associations and images (strange visions of bloody fight scenes and mangled bodies), and he suffered from periods of intense, undifferentiated rage. He was terror-stricken by his feeling of fury and tried to purge himself from the shame of his hateful thoughts by repeating prayers. Nothing he could do saved him from his inner tumult. His anger kept building; then the destructive voices started. They told him that he was bad and didn't deserve to live. He should just lay low, be still, and avoid people. Finally, he heard voices that commanded him to do away with himself. He said that these injunctions terrified him, and that was why he came to Denver. He had heard that I was studying psychology and hoped I might be able to help him straighten out.

After revealing this information, Howard felt considerable relief and actually managed a smile. I was glad to see that he was safely back among the living and felt confident that I could contribute to his recovery. He gratefully accepted my offer to have ongoing talks with him.

I learned so much from working with Brodsky. It was a confirmation of my earlier experiences with a psychotic woman named Ali and, in particular, my theoretical understanding of schizophrenia. The woman, the wife of a friend, had confided in me about her auditory hallucinations. She felt the sting of imaginary voices that ridiculed her and criticized her every move. She spoke in great detail about how the voices chastised her and suggested punitive methods of hurting herself. I could hardly believe that a person could remain as intact as Ali appeared to be, considering the torture she was enduring. It explained some of the dazed states I had noticed during times when she had acted peculiarly or strangely in a social situation. I had admiration for her capacity to endure without fragmenting from what, to me, would have been insurmountable horror.

I listened intently as she spoke about the details of her hellish existence, and an idea came to me. These hallucinatory voices sounded parental. I became aware that her voices continually admonished her for her "misdeeds." They were similar in tone to the manner in which angry parents chide their children, criticize them or hound them with sarcasm and punitive verbal abuse. The voices she heard were commanding and demeaning as though they came from a superior, or some sort of an authority figure.


Excerpted from Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice by Robert W. Firestone. Copyright © 2016 Robert W. Firestone. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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.

Table of Contents

Foreword Daniel J. Siegel, MD 9

Acknowledgments 13

Introduction 15

Chapter 1 The Uninvited 23

Chapter 2 Demon on My Shoulder 35

Chapter 3 They Sent Her Home to Die 51

Chapter 4 Off to a Rough Start 65

Chapter 5 Dance of Death 77

Chapter 6 Control 91

Chapter 7 Therapist or Tyrant? 107

Chapter 8 Regression 129

Chapter 9 Mr. Marks 147

Chapter 10 From One Side of the Couch to the Other 157

Chapter 11 Daddy's Girl 175

Afterword: R. D. Laing and the Divided Self 193

Appendix: How to Incorporate Voice Therapy into Your Life 209

Notes and References 213

Select Bibliography 219

Resources 225

Index 233

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