The Beauty of the Four-Sentence Cover Story

How to hold on to your privacy without severing relationships
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
I have an uncomfortable secret, and no, I don’t want to tell you about it. But we’re friends, and aren’t friends supposed to tell each other everything?

Or worse, we’re not friends, but you’re nosy, we work together, and if I don’t spill, you’ll bitch-shame me to our colleagues and persuade them I’m not a team player.

What to do?

In life, everybody loses

To experience tribulation is to be human. Nobody skates by without it. (In fact, in my long life the only people I’ve encountered who claim to have no problems turn out to be either tellingly defensive, delusional, or personality disordered.)

But whether it’s divorce, health issues, campaign losses, tragedies, arrests, business failures, shattered dreams, bankruptcies, job losses, infertility, infidelity, embarrassing family members, or even un incident de garde-robe, our troubles sometimes become public knowledge, and we’re left grasping for a way to duck out of discussing it.

The problem with problems is that when nice people discover you’re having difficulties, they don’t have a script. They want to be compassionate and kind, so they stumble into probing you about how you feel, how you’re handling things, or whether you need help. Their approach may be awkward, their bid for relational intimacy may be mistimed, but their intentions are good. When you’re looking for privacy, though, nice people are only your second-worst nightmare — because at least they’re compassionate and are willing to keep a confidence.
“There are many very good reasons for keeping private matters private”
The person you really don’t want to talk to is the malicious one, the office gossip, the narcissistic family member, the malevolent cop, the Regina George in your friend circle. Malicious questioners probe for details because they’re looking for dirt, hope to humiliate you, or worse. People who pry may be seeking to better their position at your expense, or may simply take perverse pleasure in causing you pain or ruining your life.

“So you’ve actually never been to a real school before? Shut up!” 
(Credit: Mean Girls is a production of Paramount Pictures)

Sheesh. It’s just a question. Why are you so defensive?

Whether the prying questions come from a good place or a dark heart, when you’re dealing with a crisis, you may have the tendency to react with defensiveness or hostility — neither of which leaves you stronger or happier. 

The good news is this: You have an absolute right to your privacy. And there are many very good reasons for keeping private matters private. For example, you may:
  • need time to process your emotions
  • need space to manage the difficulty, or develop an action plan
  • dislike being the focus of attention
  • distrust the questioner’s motives and intent
  • be uncomfortable with the degree of relational intimacy that comes with disclosure
  • loathe giving off the “stink” of failure; of appearing to be less than your best self
  • feel awkward about burdening others with your problems
  • be averse to being advised by amateurs
  • believe that positive language leads to positive outcomes, and that rehearsing your problems gives them power
  • feel too fragile to talk
  • wish to maintain the mien of competence
  • be exhausted by the subject
  • despise being discussed and gossiped about
  • want to protect the people who put you in difficult circumstances
  • abhor being someone’s “project”
  • wish to be a grownup and handle your own problems
  • detest being a “downer” (if only because it shortens your life)
  • admire the British quality of keeping a stiff upper lip
With all those great reasons for keeping your counsel, why does anyone ever talk? 

Blame it on the culture. From The Bachelor to Dr. Phil to Facebook to the NSA, we’ve become a people without secrets, a race without discretion and without the decorum that typified nearly every generation that came before us. 

What used to be unthinkable to discuss in public has now become de rigueur dinnertime conversation. Our sexual predilections, petty crimes, addictions, elective surgeries, hair dye, interpersonal problems, net worth, weight loss, and intimate grooming are all photographed and posted, cataloged for — literally — the entire world to see, probably forever.
“How do you maintain your dignity and your privacy when all the world demands that you spill your secrets?”
The pressure to participate is sometimes overwhelming. When you resist joining the fray you’re likely to be perceived as cold, sneaky, distant, unfriendly, unsporting, or — horrors! — judgmental. (The hypocrisy of calling people judgmental is lost on those who use the term.)

So how do you maintain your dignity and your privacy when all the world demands that you spill your secrets?

The Four-Sentence Cover Story to the rescue!

Since we never really know people’s motives, let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that the questioner is kindly disposed and wants only to be helpful. (Interestingly, the beauty of the strategy I’m about to explain is that the motive doesn’t matter; the strategy reassures kind people that they needn’t worry, and turns the attention of malevolent people back to themselves.) 

Rather than responding to questions mysteriously, or with defensiveness or hostility, the four-sentence cover story (FSCS) gives you a brief script for addressing the questioner with sincerity and good humor. 

The FSCS is neither unkind nor provocative. It leaves questioners feeling good about themselves and about you — regardless of their original intent. It removes the burden of “helping” from the generous, and deflates the hopes of the hurtful without giving them new ammunition. 

The principles behind the technique involve glossing over the emotion of your particular problem, minimizing the details, and providing a high degree of hope. The technique has the added beauty of diverting the focus from the past or the present to the future. 

And the strategy is…

The strategy for the FSCS has, obviously, four parts. These are:
  • Acknowledgement of the past
  • Confirmation of the present
  • Hope for the future
  • Redirection
The easy-to-remember mnemonic is: Past, Present, Future, You. Pretty simple? Great. So here are a few sample scripts:
  • “Yes, it was a bit of a rough patch there, but things are good now and it looks like we’ll/I’ll be fine going forward. But how are things going for you?”
  • “Oh, yes, it was a struggle, but it’s being managed well now, and things look better for the future. But tell me more about your kids/life/work/plans/spouse.”
  • “Well, fortunately, I/we got through the hardest part just fine, so now we’re sorting out the details. But everything’s getting back on track. Thank you for your concern. But let’s talk about happier things. How are you doing?”
Ready to put your private problems back in your own backpack? Let the four-sentence cover story carry the burden, so that you can build your personal relationships on positive interactions, rather than endless kvetching about the crises you and everyone else encounter throughout our ride on this rock we all share.

I may be that person you’re reluctant to discuss your troubles with. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist with a law degree, who worked the first half of her life as a journalist. I’m also the mom of seven former teenagers. Questioning people is in my blood. (But at least I’m good at keeping a confidence!) 

When I’m not in session, I write about managing relationships at Medium.


Knock, knock, knocking at Heaven's Gate

Create the self you wish to be.
This used not to be controversial: That we pilot our own ships.

But the zeitgeist has changed.

Disempowering Beliefs
One of the recurring counseling problems we see in our office is the belief that there's nothing to be done about bad things: poverty, substance abuse, environment, health, crime, human freedom.

Perhaps that's true about society at large -- and the frustration that comes of increasingly splintered political factions. Certainly we have little individual influence over large political movement -- no matter how powerful the feeling that comes with marching for change. (How well I understand the madness of crowds, for I was living in Asia during the Tiananmen* Square protests. In a wave of hope, my kids and I joined the crowds in Central Hong Kong, chanting slogans and waving signs protesting government crackdowns in Beijing. But after the massacres of June 4, protest went silent and hope for change died...for the moment at least.)

The Bald-Faced Lie
The unfortunate side effect of futile protests against social wrongs is that we perhaps particularize our large disappointments about societal disarray onto our own individual lives. And it's an ugly fiction: that because we cannot personally engineer broad social change, change isn't possible.

There's a subtle murmur underlying news about criminality and poverty and every other social ill, a rumbling that mumbles "Nobody can fix anything." It's a lie.

In fact, every sentient human being has immense change one particular life: Their own. Human history is notable for one thing: We claw ourselves out of bad circumstances and create better ones. We've been doing it since time immemorial. Don't let the dark whispers drag you down into the pit. You're not a victim. You're better, stronger than that. You have significance. Your existence has purpose. Find it. Live it. Be it.

*The paradoxically named TianAnMen (天安門) Square is translated as Heaven's Peaceful Gate. And hence the title of this article.

For more tips, join the AiKi Relationship Training Institute here. It's free!


Rip Up the Dark Web of Narcissism

Rip up the Narc Web
One of our therapeutic specialties is combating narcissism. We’ve studied the behavior for years and are particularly concerned with the large number of adult children of narcissists who come in to our practice in deep pain over problems with their family of origin.

What's most surprising is how many of them are only just – in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s – coming to the realization that there was something profoundly wrong with a parent they’ve idealized. Wresting with the truth that Mom is not the smartest woman in 48 states, or that Dad was actually abusive to the few friends allowed in the house is almost a revelation from heaven. In order to get their narc parent’s rare approval, children (even adult children) twist themselves into intellectual pretzels buying into the parental theses that the parent is perfect and all fault lies with other people.

It a huge discovery – one that then brings about anger, new pain, and self-hatred – when people learn (much later than is healthy) that their narc parent never actually loved them. In therapy they eventually gain peace with that fact, and discover that there was nothing they could have done differently to gain a narc parent’s genuine love – an impossibility because narcissists don’t have the capacity, in their brokenness, to give genuine love. All that narcs know is the dark counterfeit of love: “When you give me what I need, I like it. And I’ll say whatever I have to, in order to get more of that good, good stuff. So, ahem, I love you!”

Pitting Family Against Family

One of the greatest predictors of adult sibling or cousin disconnect is having a narcissistic parent or grandparent. That's not a coincidence.

It's a particularly pervasive cruelty when the slap is given in response to your accomplishments. “Tomorrow's our tenth anniversary” gets the reaction: “Your cousin's been married for 15 years. Her husband loves her so much!” Or “I got admitted to my first-choice college” is countered with “It's too bad you didn't get into an Ivy League school like my friend's son.”

What’s truly tragic is how often narcissists plant themselves at the center of a web, like a sentient arachnid, where they control all the spokes and family members find themselves having to get past the spider in order to relate to one another. It’s an exhausting effort made more difficult by the narc spider’s persistence at clipping the connections between the spokes:

  • “Your brother is doing really well at his new job. I wonder why you’re having so much trouble.” 
  • “Your sister doesn’t really like the way you’re raising your kids. She thinks you should take a parenting class.” 
  • “You probably don’t know how much you’ve disappointed your mother. I don’t know if she’ll even want to see you at Christmas.” 
  • “Your dad is out of control. He’s thinking of leaving us. What can we do to stop him?” 
  • “Your uncle is dating a whore, so we probably shouldn’t have him at the wedding.”

Fixing the Family
If you’ve been intimately connected with a narcissist in your family, particularly a narcissistic parent or grandparent, therapy may prove helpful. But in the short term, here’s some important advice: Do not allow the spider to control the communication in your family. Unless your family members have chosen the path of emulating the narcissist, keep the relationship alive on your own terms. That means:
  • Refuse to hear any gossip about another family member.
  • Cut off comparisons by saying “I’ll talk with X directly about that. Please don’t carry messages.”
  • Stop confiding in narcissists, especially over your concerns about another family member.
  • Deliberately build a one-on-one relationship with distant family members, as much as possible, by extending invitations to meet over lunch or coffee, wherever is convenient for that person.
  • Extend invitations to gatherings, repeatedly, and without taking offense if you’re turned down the first several times.
  • Address family estrangement by taking the blame for your former willingness to participate in the narcissist's gossip and committing to future maturity.
  • Ask for reconciliation, with a therapist’s help if necessary. Send the request by mail so that your estranged family member has the ability to consider your bid for connection without pressure to respond immediately. If there’s no response, try again every six months or so.
  • Be careful to accept all blame for your own mistakes, without casting aspersions on your estranged relative. There’ll be plenty of time to resolve your own hurts after the relationship is on solid footing.
Want more tips on building emotional intimacy with people you love? Join the AiKi Relationship Training Institute for free by signing up here!


Watch Out for Human Projectors

Is it true, or are you projecting?
For good or bad, humans tend to believe other people are like themselves. If they say most people cheat or lie, they’re projecting. If they say most people are honest or generous, it’s likely they, themselves, have those qualities.

If you generally believe the best of people, be cautious about surrounding yourself with people who reflexively think the worst of others.

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Click here to be notified when our book, The AiKi of Self-Awareness: How a Therapist Uses Emotional Intelligence to Heal Marriages, is available.

Research source:
Wood, D., Harms, P., & Vazire, S. (2010). Perceiver effects as projective tests: What your perceptions of others say about you. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(1), 174-190.


Stop Spinning; Start Listing

Ever feel so overwhelmed -- or agitated -- that it's hard to think clearly? 

Whether it's relationship conflict, financial worries, fear, anxiety, or the stress of daily life, it's common for people under pressure to experience racing thoughts -- sometimes to an almost vertiginous degree.

That state of confused thinking actually -- and paradoxically -- creates even more confusion, anxiety and stress. Thoughts spinning out of control feel a lot like life spinning out of control.

Scattered Thinking? Make a list!
Filling pages with random thoughts 

feels cathartic,
but clarity of thought requires lists.
To resolve scattered, racing thoughts we offer a practical, mindful, quick fix: Make a list.

Pulling out a sheet of paper (or opening a blank document) is a deliberate, conscious act that allows you to slow yourself down, and beginning a list prompts you to start organizing your thinking.

We advocate mindfulness as a critical component of good mental health. Mindfulness improves your internal states, and produces subtle, positive mood, energy, and behavioral shifts.(1) As you mindfully create lists you begin to feel rational, calm, and confident. List-making is itself a creative act, focusing attention and stopping the mind from automatic, habitual patterns of agitated thinking. From this state it becomes possible to slow your breathing, observe yourself, calm your thinking, and stay in the moment. 

Bonus: Lists become to-do lists, and when things get done, you build your sense of accomplishment -- a big part of healthy self-esteem. 

(1) Miklowitz, D. J., Alatiq, Y., Goodwin, G. M., Geddes, J. R., Fennell, M. J. V., Dimidjian, S., Hauser, M., and Williams, J. M. G. (2009). "A Pilot Study of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder." International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 2(4), 373–382.


A Rash of Rashness

When we counsel clients in difficult relationships, one of the curious patterns we see is a tendency toward impulsivity. We've seen it so often, in fact, that we've begun to believe it may be the most malignant of all relationship behaviors. 
Impulsivity: The Root of Regret. 
Considered Decisions Bring Joy.

Impulsive people say and do hurtful things to the people they love, and tend to suffer problems at work, with law enforcement, and in completing projects. If you look back at your own regrets, you'll likely find that nearly all of them arose out of an impulsive act.

When people are able to master their impulsivity, wonderful things start to occur in their marriages: Escalation ends, hearing happens, defensiveness discontinues, and intimacy is initiated.

New research backs us up. A study out of the University of Georgia finds that among married couples, there is a significant correlation between high levels of impulsiveness, and low levels of marital satisfaction and commitment. Impulsivity is also correlated with high levels of verbal aggression.(1)  

Bottom line? Slowing down is a fast fix for many relationship problems. And it's a fairly easy correction: Just take a deep breath, think carefully before you speak, and watch intimacy grow! 


(1) Lavner, J. A., Lamkin, J., & Miller, J. D. (2017). Trait Impulsivity and Newlyweds' Marital Trajectories. Journal of Personality Disorders, 31(1), 133-144. doi:10.1521/pedi_2016_30_242


Optimism: The Happy Fix for Stress and PTSD

Happy and you know it? Congrats! New research out this month demonstrates, once again, the power of optimism to make life better. One new study shows that after traumatic events, optimistic people are better equipped to cope with intrusive thoughts and anxiety, and -- unlike their pessimistic peers -- don't develop avoidance, numbing, or "dysphoric arousal." (1)
Pronoia: The Optimistic Belief that People 
Like You, and Conspire in Your Favor

Another new study finds when performing stressful tasks, optimistic people are better at perseverance, and also have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. (Lower levels of cortisol are correlated with happiness and positive affect.) (2)

So jump on the positivity bandwagon to stay happy and healthy!

(1) Birkeland, M. S., Blix, I., Solberg, Ø., & Heir, T. (2017). Does optimism act as a buffer against posttraumatic stress over time? A longitudinal study of the protective role of optimism after the 2011 Oslo bombing. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, And Policy, 9(2), 207-213. doi:10.1037/tra0000188

(2) Binsch, O., Van Wietmarschen, H., & Buick, F. (2017). Relationships between cortisol, optimism, and perseverance measured in two military settings. Military Psychology, 29(2), 99-116. doi:10.1037/mil0000146


True Things

Other People Are Allowed 
Their Faulty Perceptions; 
There's No Need to Respond.
No great person has been universally loved. Spending precious time trying to change other people's opinions of you is a Sisyphean task. Better to put your energy into being your best self, and let other people's opinions fall where they will.

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Click here to be notified when our book The AiKi of Self-Awareness: How a Therapist Uses Emotional Intelligence in Relationship Counseling, is available.


Martial Arts for the Mind - say, what?

What do we mean by the term "Martial Arts for the Mind"?

Know nothing at all about martial arts? Oh, c'mon. You've seen a Jackie Chan movie, right? No? How 'bout the Karate Kid? Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Kung Fu Panda?

Even if movies were your only exposure to the martial arts, you probably already understand some basic principles of the form.

The martial arts are philosophically grounded in theories about awareness, predictive moves, and stepping away from trouble. AiKiDo, the model we reference in AiKi Relationship Training, is particularly focused on ideas such as resisting the natural tendency to defend in the same way we're attacked. Our AiKi technique teaches communication moves such as pulling when pushed, or pushing when pulled, or -- best of all -- stepping aside to avoid relational conflict altogether.

AiKi Relationship Training coaches you in techniques to sidestep verbal attacks, avoid quarrels over silly nonsense, and tackle problems without triggering your partner.

It's a mind thing
You want to play Neo in your own life? Stay tuned to the AiKi Relationship Training channel, and we'll show you how!


An end of fighting? Really?

Well, yeah, actually.

Sometimes, when we promise clients they can actually stop fighting, forever, and build marital intimacy,* they look at us skeptically...Almost as if fighting and intimacy go hand-in-hand, rather than contradict one another.

But here's the cycle we observe with clients who use our technique: Friendship. Peace. Laughter. Intimacy. Joy. More friendship. More peace. More laughter. More intimacy. More joy.

There's a process we can get behind. Therapeutically, that is.

*Intimacy: It's not necessarily a euphemism for sex. (Well, it can be. But not here, not in front of the children, please.)


What is this "AiKi" Thing?

What's the story with that weird "AiKi" word at the top of the page?

Well, set yerself down fer' a spell, and let us spin ya' a yarn:

The character 合 (pronounced Hé in Mandarin, Hap6 in Cantonese, and Ai (eye) in Japanese) means to join, to blend, to combine, to fit together. 

The character 氣 (pronounced Qì/Chì in Mandarin, Hei3 in Cantonese, and Ki (key) in Japanese) suggests spirit, life force, energy, breath. (This idea equates with the Hebrew word נִשְׁמַת־, nishmah, which means breath/air/spirit, and describes the life force breathed into the creation of mankind in the book of Genesis.)

Together, those two characters, Ai and Ki (eye key), suggest joining the spirit, relational harmony, and interacting with another human being, without conflict. That concept of AiKi means blending without clashing, having intimate connection without triggering your partner. 

It's the foundation of our communication training program.