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Core Issues



Whenever there is any kind of conflict, the stress and pressure bring up “core issues” that possibly haven’t come up before, or we have been able to ignore them. In Trauma and Twelve Step Recovery, we talk about these Core Issues.

By Barbara Harris Whitfield and Charles L. Whitfield / January 25th, 2021

Most growth experiences are connected to one or many of our personal core issues. Right now we are in a worldwide conflict. We may feel helpless but we are not. These conflicts that we are watching, are bringing up core issues that we can work on in our own inner life (see our article on Stillness about our inner life.) This is an opportunity to calm the conflict within ourselves. We can name the issue that is coming up and bring awareness to it. Just doing that will take much of the painful energy out of our inner and outer life.

My husband Charles is a medical doctor who specializes in helping people recover from addictions, compulsions, or growing up in a dysfunctional family. He has written extensively on these topics, and in his most recent book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference, the entire focus is on the fifteen core issues that people develop as ego defenses to protect themselves from feeling psychological pain. The value in knowing what these core issues are is that we can become more conscious of what we are actually experiencing. As we gain awareness we become more empowered to live as our True Selves (also called Soul, or our Child Within) rather than as our false, codependent self (sometimes called our negative ego). Learning about core issues and naming them when they become part of our response to whatever conflicts we’re facing is a major aid in becoming a psychologically healthy person.

These are the 15 core issues:

  • Difficulty resolving conflict 

  • Feelings

  • Control

  • Trust

  • Being real

  • Low self-esteem / shame

  • Dependence

  • Fear of abandonment

  • All-or-none thinking and behaving

  • High tolerance for inappropriate behavior

  • Over-responsibility for others

  • Neglecting my own needs

  • Grieving my ungrieved hurts, losses and traumas

  • Difficulty giving love, and difficulty receiving love   


Listed below are short descriptions to begin to help us to recognize these core issues because once we know we are in a conflict, we can switch our attention to the core issue and move out of the drama and into the healing work:

Difficulty Resolving Conflict

This is at the top of the chart. Life hands us conflicts. It’s part of being human. I’m still not sure I can “handle” them but I now know I can “endure” them. Conflicts used to cause me to feel like the wicked witch melting at the end of The Wizard of Oz! Because conflicts are natural to being alive, we need to see them as internal conflicts and practice getting through them without melting.


Research has shown that if we stick with a feeling and don’t “cloak” it in a verbal story, it will come and go in 90 seconds. If, however, we remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because we have chosen to let that circuit in our brain continue to run.

If my anger goes on much longer, or what I call “ad nauseam” it’s time to name it as a core issue so I can learn how to get out and stay out. I visualize the hamster running on the wheel. (And of course, in my issue the hamster is me). If I am running on anger, it’s time to do some anger bat work (Yes. We have one. We keep it in our group room for use in our therapy groups. I use it when I decide it may help with an upset because it feels good to get the anger out physically.) If you don’t have an anger bat, hit a pillow or twisting a towel will do. Think about what you are feeling and wring a dry towel. Face towels are a good size. Really get into the feeling as you zero in on getting that towel as wrung as possible. 

Screaming in the car (with the windows rolled up and no one else with you) works well too. I try to wait for a red light to do it. Eventually, when we allow all the uncomfortable feelings to move through us, the joyful feelings are easier to feel and our feelings are fun. We just have to remember to not “numb out” to our feelings or here comes another core issue out of control!


I was having some trouble giving up the urge of wanting to control a painful situation with one of my adult children. Then I had this dream. I was coming down the elevator from a top floor of an apartment house. As I walked through the lobby a woman on a phone in a booth (are you old enough to remember phone booths?) looked out and said to me, “Relax. This whole area is safe!” And I felt my dream self relax. I walked out to my car (not really. It was a huge SUV.) and I tried to get in the driver’s side which was locked. I walked around to the passenger side and it was open. I realized I didn’t have my purse and was going to go back inside and up the elevator to get it. A voice in my dream self’s head told me that I didn’t need my purse anymore (could that mean my identity? I had been studying the Eastern concept of “Being Nobody Special” and loved it. It released me from a lot of inner life spin.) Then the voice told me to relax and get used to being the passenger while “It” drove me around — from now on. I was pretty sure that voice was my (our) Higher Power.

I was grateful for that dream and I released my son to [hopefully] his highest good.


Oh Boy! I could write a whole book on the core issue of trust. Having grown up in a severely dysfunctional home, trust has always been my biggest core issue, or so it seems in my inner life. The first half of my life I handled trust by not handling it. I gave it away to everyone else. Ouch! Looking back now, well—at least I am at the point where I can chuckle. Some core issues are a string that lasts for years until we start to wake up and become aware of them. So I became aware of how I trusted everyone else, and then I started to do the exact opposite, I didn’t trust anyone! Now, when this issue raises it’s “Ugly Head” [I picture it as a Cobra snake coming out of a basket], I immediately label it as a possible trust issue and ask myself if I’m seeing clearly, or do I need to consult with someone else who is waking up too. 

All-or-None Thinking and Behaving

What I just described in the core issue above, trust, is all-or-none thinking. Either I trusted everyone, or I trusted no one.

This is an interesting core issue because it’s impractical to ever think we can have it all. So what’s left — NOTHING! Watch the way you say things and how you behave. If everything is black and white, either/or, and mostly negative, then your issue is high drama caused by all-or-none thinking and behaving.

Being Real

Here’s how I handle this one:

 A significant person in my life telling me to “stop being that way!” 

Here’s an issue being born. I try to nip it in the bud! First, I ask myself, “Is ‘that way’ comfortable for me? Is this what I have chosen and/or is it serving my highest good?” 

I also know that my close others aren’t trying to hurt me. They are just being the perfect “edition” of who they are right now. So I decide if I am being real, and if I am, then I make sure I have a healthy boundary between them and me. I visualize this by keeping what is them on their side of the boundary and what is me on my side. This way I don’t take on their “stuff” and the conflict is avoided. If I slip up and take their opinion on, then I’m often in another conflict. It gets easier as time goes on with practice for these “Being Real issues.” 

When I start to feel uncomfortable from feeling like I have just “given myself away.”  I realize that my core issue is Being Real, and I take myself back! 

Low Self-Esteem or Shame

Nobody else better try this one on me. I used to do a good job on myself and now if I or anyone else tries this one on me — Watch out, big time issue! 

Low Self-Esteem (code word “Shame”) is endemic to we who grew up in dysfunctional homes. It drains all our energy internally and takes all the joy out of life.  When we feel it — immediately call it what it is and “just say ‘NO!’”


We live in a world with others all around us, and it’s normal to have some dependence and independence. The balanced way here is also to have some interdependence on each other without our real self disappearing. If you feel too dependent go back up to “Being Real” and start from there. If we’re too dependent our significant other is going to hand us lots of conflicts.

Fear of Abandonment

Fearing abandonment because we will feel lonely is a big core issue.

Enjoying being alone is not.

When we stop fearing abandonment, we enjoy being with ourselves.

And the pay off when we stop fearing and enjoy being alone is — people can feel that enjoyment in us and want to be around us.

High Tolerance for Inappropriate Behavior

If we grew up in a dysfunctional family we have high tolerance for inappropriate behavior. We needed to learn to do this to survive. Looking around at our culture, we are also showing high tolerance for inappropriate behavior in our compulsion to be politically correct, which has too often stifled our real self and our creativity. As adults we don’t need to hang on to codependent relationships anymore to survive. We can develop “low tolerance” for inappropriate behavior and free ourselves of constant drama.

Over-Responsibility for Others

If we had to take care of our parents, instead of our parents taking care of us so we could have a healthy fun childhood — then we learned to be overly responsible for others and we may not even know we are doing it. But reading this article hopefully makes us more aware of what is draining us. This is a big revelation when we first figure it out. We all need to take care of ourselves and if our over-responsibility is stopping us from becoming independent, we need to step back. What a relief!

The relief comes when we are with someone who transparently makes us feel weak. We call these people “sappers” because they sap our energy and walk away feeling great while we suddenly need a nap. The relief comes from naming our over-responsibility and either staying away from the sapper or at the very least, putting up a healthy boundary.

Neglecting Your Own Needs

This goes with the one above. (Actually, they are all intertwined.) If I’m busy taking care of you (and possibly everybody) when do I have time or energy to get my own needs met?

Grieving Ungrieved Hurts, Losses, and Traumas

When I got hurt, lost something big or was traumatized, was I allowed to express my pain and even grieve? If your answer is “no” then you were traumatized twice, the first time by a trauma and then when you weren’t allowed to express your pain. It helps to revisit some of the old traumas from our childhood if we are still getting memories back of them and let ourselves feel the feelings around the trauma that we weren’t allowed to feel back then. That’s how we release these old traumas. We don’t have to figure them out at the start, just feel the associated feelings, name things accurately and eventually let go of our unhealthy attachment to them.

Difficulty Giving Love, and Difficulty Receiving Love   

Seriously, how many conflicts have you experienced around trying to give and get love? If your answer is “too many!” then exploring these core issues is going to help you by first learning to love yourself. And then we will know what we want and it will be a lot healthier than what has gone on before.

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