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Q & A with Dr. Boorstein

Dear Dr. Boorstein,

Is seems as though fixing your relationship can take a lot of time. Is there anything I can do right now to ease the tension?

Thank you, Need Help Today.


Dear Need Help Today,

In your struggling relationship, if you recall that you once loved each other, there is hope that you can revive those feelings.

  • During any conflict, in order to calm down recognize in yourself your negative feelings, including, anger, irritation and annoyance. This is important because it can help you to better control your emotionsonce you see and feel and become aware.
    • Take a time out.Get some distance from the problem.
      • Go to different rooms for a bit to get some “Space”
      • Go for a non-talking walk or other activity together or separately.
      • Watch a “light” movie together.
      • Go for a quiet dinner.
  • Once you have calmed the situation,first use some of the following techniques from my book.
    • Even if it sounds silly or contrived, say something positive and complementary to your partner. This will help to further defuse the situation. Even something as simple as, “You look nice today” or “ I would like to make  our relationship better” can be effective.
    • Now, in the ensuing conversation avoid the word “YOU” which mostly is used and heard as implying blame.
    • Try to focus the conversation on your personal distress, for instance, “I feel worried that I am not good enough.”
  • Gently ask your partner to help you with your fear or worry.
  • If in your calmness you can be aware of your hurtful actions in the situation, you should apologizefor those actions. It will be extraordinarily helpful in healing your damaged relationship.
    • Something as simple as, “Please forgive me for yelling at you earlier.”


It is my experience that if couples can begin to successfully use the techniques which I have described, and are further elaborated on in my book; the healing processes can begin and lead to a long and positive relationship.


How the Crocodile Can Take Over

The Supersensitive Neural Network, which I will abbreviate from now on as SNN, is a term that I created which refers to the neural circuits that, because of past traumas experienced, become more “on guard” than usual. The reaction by the limbic system (crocodile) becomes stronger and faster each time it is activated. For example, a soldier who has been attacked many times quickly develops a reaction to even the slightest sight or sound with very fast fight or flight reactions. However, when this same soldier, no longer in danger, hears the sound of a car back-firing, his SNN may react by preparing to fight or flee. This reaction is a trait of what we commonly call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

These SNN patterns get stronger with repeated negative experiences. The crocodile, with its boosted SNN, evaluates every situation that arises in relationships to see if it needs to protect itself. When the crocodile is frightened, the speed of its reaction takes over and, if unchecked, it begins talking or acting unwisely.

Noted neuroscientist Dr. Joseph LeDoux, feels that the memories of early interactions are stored in our brains as rough and wordless blueprints. This can explain the puzzling experience of an angry outburst that has no logical basis. A person’s fight or flight reaction can come from a time in life when they couldn’t really understand what was happening, yet had a strong emotional response. Dr. LeDoux calls these “precognitive emotions.” In this way, our crocodile’s SNN colors what we think and do.

For me, growing up with a very critical mother, my crocodile was always “on guard”, and thus is very strong. Now when I lecture to large audiences, I look out over the audience and my crocodile tells me to be afraid because it knows “someone” sitting out there is ready to criticize me. My crocodile reaction makes me want to run away.

One day, at the beginning of one of my presentations, I decided to experiment with my crocodile’s incorrect interpretation of the situation. I confessed to the audience that, since my mother was always critical of me, it would help me a great deal if they smiled, so I’d know they were my friends. They smiled and laughed. My crocodile relaxed and then my owl was in charge. It has been successful every time both as an example of what I am talking about here and in making me more comfortable speaking to an audience.who's talking now, Dr. Boorstein, SNN, Crocodile, Owl

The Do-It Yourself Tool Kit

There is a lot that you can do by yourself to increase your awareness of “Who’s talking now?” and positively affect your relationships. Some of the ways you can do this are by:

1.      Lessen your fear and anger 

When we are flooded with the negative emotions of fear and anger, in the confusion of the moment our crocodiles say or do things which are destructive. Try to slow things down and ask yourself, “Who’s Talking Now?” This will help give your owl time to come into the exchange, so that you can handle the situation more skillfully. Then ask yourself, “Why would it bother me?” to help lessen your fear and anger.

For Example:

Owl Question: Why are you so afraid of being involved?

Crocodile Answer: They will reject me.

Owl Question: Why would it bother you to be rejected?

Crocodile Answer: It would be terrible to be alone and scared.

Owl Question: Why would if bother you if you were along and scared?

Crocodile Answer: I think that I’ll die

2.      Take caring of yourself 

Caring for yourself will strengthen the wisdom and caring of your owl so it can have a greater chance to show itself

3.      Exercise     

When exercising your brain signals the body to produce endorphins, a hormone in the brain that is a great antidepressant

4.      Get plenty of sleep and rest 

Our crocodiles stay on guard no matter how much sleep you get, but our owls, with inadequate rest, lose power to stay engaged

5.      Having a healthy diet                                                                 

A balanced diet is crucial as it supplies adequate and useable supplies of energy to our brains. Our crocodiles stay on guard with a lack of food, but our owl’s thinking can be impaired by such things as low blood sugar.

More on the Owl and Crocodile

who's talking, crocodile, owl, dr. boorsteinSometimes when we read complicated words, we tend to skip over them instead of trying to make sense of them.  That is why I chose animal characters in order to metaphorically describe the difficult concepts I set out to convey.  I wanted to make them interesting, and in turn, less frightening to the reader.

Let me introduce the characters, which both reside in all of us!  They can both be our friend and our enemy at different times.

The crocodile, who's talking, Dr. BoorsteinCrocodile.  A mean old reptile that represents a part of our brain who’s only goal is to product us individually at all times at all costs, whether rational or not.  The Crocodile reacts to situations extremely quickly without any consideration to the eventual outcome. This can be good if you are driving and a child runs in front of your car. Extremely fast reaction is what you want, save the child; do not think about the cars in back of you. On the other hand, in a relationship, your crocodile reaction may be very damaging. Your partner, whom you love, comes home and is very tired and says something which your crocodile senses as frightening sends up your danger flag.  Your crocodile will usually say something in order to ward off the perceived attack, and this will usually end badly for both parties.


owl, who's talking, Dr. Boorstein

The Owl.  The Wise Owl represents the slower more thoughtful part of our brain. The Owl sits in the tree and speaks slowly and wisely. Again, this can be good and bad.  In the same scenario of the child running in front of the car, a slow well thought out reaction to the situation may results in a dead child.  On the other hand, in relationships, a slow thoughtful reaction to a difficult situation will help to diffuse the difficulty, thus providing a happy ending.

The Owl and Crocodile reside within us at the same time.  In my book, I try to help the reader to listen and understand both of them.  If one can practice knowing “Who Is Talking Now?” using the techniques I describe, they can strengthen their Owl reaction and repair and bring joy to their relationship.

The Owl or the Crocodile?

who's talking now, Dr. Boorstein, owl, Crocodile, psychotherapyThe owl represents your best, highest, and most mature values; the part of you that is loving, kind, and compassionate. The owl nurtures your self-esteem and cares about the feelings and needs of others and thinks things through slowly and carefully. The owl lives in the brain’s neo-cortex.

The owl’s agenda constantly changes as different skills, capacities, wisdoms and humor develop. As these skills get refined, the owl can help a person develop a satisfying career or work that is gratifying, and contributes to the wellwho's talking now, Dr. Boorsteinbeing of others.

As adolescents and young adults move towards intimacy and companionship with a partner, their owls develop the ability to recognize and accept or appreciate a partner’s different points of view. Intimate adult relationships include the desire to nurture one’s partner emotionally and physically beyond the most basic survival needs of food, and shelter.  This can extend beyond one’s partner or family, to include all living beings. What I call “The Wise Old Owl” is the part of the brain of a mature adult with a sense of meaning and purpose in life, moral principles and the courage to live up to them.

The crocodile represents the self centered part of your nature. It is powerful and reacts quickly. This can be useful if you are driving and need a fast reaction to avoid a collision, but, in a relationship, this quick reaction is destructive. The crocodile lives in the brain’s limbic system.

The crocodile’s main job is to make sure you don’t die. Depending on circumstances, the crocodile will either fight, flight, or Who's talking now, Dr. Boorsteinfreeze. Being cunning, it will often try to rationalize its selfish actions and words as being right, justified and even appropriate.  To make sure that it survives, the crocodile will express sexual feelings without caring much about the feelings of its partner. The crocodile has a strong sense of entitlement and is without morals.  Here are some of the slogans that the crocodile operates with: “Shoot first and ask questions later,” “All is fair in lust and war” and “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” 

The size and strength of your crocodile is influenced by what you inherited from your parent(s).  If your mom and dad had a “short fuse” or showed a great deal of rage, then there is a strong possibility that you may also have those tendencies. In addition, if you experienced physical or psychological trauma as a child, it is likely you will have an overactive crocodile upsetting the balance of your mind when you become an adult. Regardless of the relative strengths of your owl and crocodile, practicing the techniques described in this book will strengthen the owl so it can be the one talking first.Who's talking now, Dr. Boorstein

Who’s Talking Now, The Owl or the Crocodile?

In today’s high stress, fast paced world, our relationships with spouses, children and others may be the most difficult and important things we deal with! My name is Dr. Seymour Boorstein M.D.  I am a practicing psychiatrist and for over fifty years I have been helping people deal with their relationship problems.

Early on, I began to notice that most, if not all, of the issues in relationship problems can ultimately be traced back to inner fear.  But fear is not always a bad thing.  For instance, if you are driving down the street and a small child runs out in front of your car, you want your fear to impel you to slam on the brakes quickly. This is perhaps our most ancient of emotions and has served all animals well throughout history. This emotional reaction stems from the limbic part of our brain, sometimes referred to as our reptilian brain. This part of our brain reacts very quickly when frightened.

However, most of the time in relationships, this quick reaction time can get us into trouble. If your partner in a relationship, whether spouse, child, co-worker, etc., says or does something to anger or annoy you, an immediate fear-based, quick response may cause more damage than if you had taken some time to calmly and rationally deal with the situation. The part of the brain which operates more slowly and rationally is called the cortical brain.

If we can learn to control which part of our brain is responding to the situation, then we can begin to heal damaged relationships. To help my patients understand these concepts I invented the characters of the “Crocodile,” our limbic reptilian brain, and the “Owl,” our loving and wise cortical brain.

Over the years I had so much success with these characters that I decided to write a book with these tools for the general public. Instead of a heavy, serious self-help book, I chose to use a whimsical, color-illustrated humorous approach so that people would have a fun time reading about it and putting these helpful concepts into practice in their relationships.

The book Who’s Talking Now, The Owl or the Crocodile? uses real-life stories about couples facing problems in their relationships and how they have used the tools I present to get to the root of their fear issues, thus gently resolving these issues so that all parties involved may benefit.