Remember in those old cartoons when Daffy Duck would be torn between the little angel and the little devil sitting on his shoulders telling him what to do? More often than not, he went with the little devil.
Much as we all do from time to time. For author and business consultant Tom Gagliano, the little devil on his shoulder is called “the warden.” He’s a guy with a baseball bat who clunks you one whenever you step out of line — and by “out of line” Gagliano means daring to think for even a moment that you deserve to be happy.
On Monday, August 22, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in North Brunswick, Gagliano will sign and talk about his new book, “The Problem Was Me: How to End Negative Self-Talk and Take Your Life to a New Level,” which he wrote with Pittsburgh-based psychiatrist Abraham Twerski. The event is free. For more information, call 732-545-7860.
Gagliano, a New York native, is a semi-retired entrepreneur who has some real estate holdings in Brooklyn. He also still does some consulting in the binding (clothing) industry, in which he worked for almost 30 years. He took on the business after he graduated from Seton Hall with a degree in marketing and stepped in for his father, who was in rehab for alcoholism.
“I walked into a business that was almost bankrupt,” Gagliano says. “Dad had a lot of sneaky, lying workers who took advantage of the fact that he was in rehab.” So Gagliano fired them and hired a new crop of employees with whom he became close.
As a boss, and as everything, Gagliano was “too competitive,” especially with himself. “I was always very competitive in sports, in business, and in everything,” he says. “I was compulsive.” The approach helped build his father’s business into a success, but it cost him dearly otherwise.
“I grew up on one message from my father and his father,” Gagliano says. “Money was the only important thing. Money was the whole solution to all your problems. I had all this money, but it wasn’t fixing what was broken inside of me.”
If his wallet didn’t suffer, between his real estate holdings and his business success, his family did. Gagliano gave into his compulsions and started gambling and philandering. “I just went from one addiction to the other,” he says.
He eventually realized that he needed help and sought the assistance of support groups and recovery programs. For years he attended and hosted groups (he still does) and gave back by telling of his own experiences. Others started listening, to the extent that therapists asked to meet the man who had been helping their patients. Eventually, they told him that he was wasting his time in business — his true calling was to be a therapist.
Gagliano took their advice and went back to school. Twenty-seven years after he left college Gagliano has finished his master’s in social work from Rutgers. In fact, he just finished last week. As might be expected, he took the accelerated program. “I’m still compulsive,” he says. “Besides, I just want to get through school.”
It was a tough two years, he admits. Even being semi-retired, he found himself pressed for time, between school, groups, writing his book, and his family. But getting the master’s was important to him, and he says he could not have done it “without my support group and family holding me up when the warden was trying to pull me down.”
The warden. “Whenever someone made me feel defective, he would come out swinging,” Gagliano says of the little man with the bat “who sat on my shoulder for years. His motive for using the bat is to take a swing at me should I ever get the idea that I deserve to be happy or if I stumble and make a mistake. He permits me no margin for error.”
The warden, Gagliano says, keeps us emotionally shackled and is powerful enough to imprison us in self-destructive behaviors — drinking, online gambling and pornography, and distancing ourselves from others, to name a few.
“The warden caused me to identify myself as a mistake,” Gagliano says. “He showed me all the ways to avoid intimacy because the message I received was that intimacy was painful and should be avoided.”
Gagliano developed a way to deal with the warden that quickly caught on to the people in his support groups — written assignments. The first aims to increase people’s self-awareness by identifying destructive behaviors. The second suggests ways to take healthy actions that negate the power of the warden.
“Sometimes we act in ways that do not always make sense as we hurt ourselves and others,” Gagliano says. “We feel compelled to listen to the destructive inner voice. A single negative message in childhood can carry a lifetime sentence.”
Gagliano says that recovery begins with three main elements — awareness, action, and maintenance. “You need awareness for a person to understand what is broken inside and know what needs to be fixed,” he says. You need to know what your behavior patterns are, own up to them, and set to fixing them.
Second, you need to take healthy actions. “Awareness alone will not change anything,” Gagliano says. “If people do what they always did, they will get what they always got.” Most of the time, the person will not feel like doing these actions, he says — actually stopping destructive, negative thoughts and behaviors and setting more constructive actions into motion. Usually, he says, they have to do what is uncomfortable to them.
Then there is the hard part — maintenance. If the new actions meant to fix your life are not maintained, Gagliano says, “the warden’s voice will grow and people will once again become chained to his commands. In essence, without awareness you cannot take positive actions, and without positive actions, there is nothing to maintain.”
When he grows up, Gagliano hopes to figure out what to do. He might open his own therapy practice or he might make his way in public speaking. Either way, he wants to set up support groups for intimacy for men. “Addicts think that that if you stay sober, you’ll automatically know how to find intimacy,” Gagliano says. “But the tools for recovery are not the same as the tools for intimacy. When people get close, addicts tend to sabotage it, and it’s rooted in the belief that they don’t deserve it.”
More than anything, though, Gagliano wants to get to the things he missed by compulsively chasing the brass ring all those years. He says simply, “I want to get back to life.”