Book Review – Don’t Feed The Ducks

Book Review – Don’t Feed The Ducks

John Raven and I first interacted late in 2014, and within a few months he was a guest on our podcast and began collaborating with us to help develop a codependency recovery course, Build Better Boundaries.

In getting to know him AND reading his book, it’s clear that John has a gift for deeply intellectualizing concepts and explaining them in a cohesive way. He’s a profound thinker with a calm, kind demeanor, a good combination for an effective counselor.

Here’s my review of his book entitled Don’t Feed The Ducks: Overcoming Unhealthy Helping In Your Life & Relationships

The Big Question

Overall, Don’t Feed The Ducks is a relatively fast read at 92 pages, and it wrestles with some of the difficult “up-front” struggles many codependents have, namely actor-observer bias and fundamental attribution error. To put it directly, this book can help those in denial to come out of it, and start accepting responsibility for change rather than externalizing problems out of habit. Rather than ask, “How can I fix him / her?” readers can start asking, “Is my heart in the right place?”

The book’s title is explained early on through the story of Amy, a woman with an intrusive and exaggerated sense of responsibility. To get away from the stressful life of caring for her family and feeling obligated to perfection, Amy regularly strolls down to the pond near her house and feeds the ducks. But soon after feeding, she feels guilty for not feeding them enough, combined with shame since there is a sign that says DON’T FEED THE DUCKS. After eating three bags of bread, the ducks crowd around and beg for more until Amy finds herself verbally apologizing to them. She feels out of control. Looking for a solution to her problems and chaotic life, Amy goes to see a counselor.

Her counselor, John, begins asking her questions to prompt the removal of mental blocks that hold her back. Amy realizes that the more tightly she grasps for perfection, the more it slips away. Ultimately, she begins to “unlock the rush of relief that comes with casting aside the anxiety and burden of expectations, and obtaining resolution through purposeful awareness of her own beliefs.”

The author teaches us that our inborn ego defenses aren’t automatically designed to have the level of introspection needed to take on the responsibility of changing our environment. Rather, we tend to blame our environment for many of our problems.

The Metaphor

Raven offers a metaphor for how to break down the ego-defenses that keep us from realizing problematic thinking:

Feeding ducks is like unhealthy helping:

Ducks will furiously scramble towards humans to gobble up most anything we offer. However, a lot of the food we feed them isn’t nutritionally sound for them in the first place; it fills their bellies without providing true nourishment. Feeding them trains them to become bolder and more aggressive around us, and they may even start nipping when they don’t get what they want. Finally, they may find they have a comfortable safe haven with an abundance of food, delay their migration south before winter, and be at risk of starvation along the way.

On the other side of the coin, we have human “ducks” in our lives. These could be children down on their luck with finances or incapable of moving out of the home, friends whom we feel obligated to rescue from relationship problems, or an addicted person close to us, maybe even a spouse. Feeding these “ducks” may actually harm their progress, preventing them from learning an important lesson in order to grow. Perhaps feeding them helps them develop a false sense of authority or power. You may grow frustrated at the size of the flock, or resentful that your favors are never returned when YOU need help.

Four Critical Assumptions

Raven builds his advice on four main assumptions:

Assumption #1 – You Can’t “Make Me” Feel Anything

“Others can influence the way you feel, but can never directly cause you to feel a certain way. It is at the crux of this distinction that change can and will happen.”

Externalizing the cause of blame allows you to externalize the solution to your problems. This is a subtle trap you can fall into, yet the paradigm is difficult to shift away from.

Assumption #2 – Likewise, I Can’t “Make You” Feel Anything

“Along with the idea that others control how a person feels usually comes the desire to be able to control another’s feelings… neither of these is the case, one must actively give up the practice of attempting to control the emotions of others.”

While it’s enchanting to believe you can have power over how someone else is ‘supposed’ to feel, the responsibility for their actions would inevitably come with that.

Assumption #3 – Reject The Notion That Life Isn’t What You Make It

“We need to understand the difference between influence and cause. Certainly the tragedies and joys of life have an impact on us. But we have the demonstrable ability to change the way we feel.”

Assumption #4 – Ignoring Is NOT Resolution

First, it’s important to be aware of just how much our problems are affecting us. For many, there’s a lack of awareness of the real impact of our problems.

Second, it’s important to realize what WE are doing to facilitate these problems. Getting your spouse to only drink a six-pack instead of a twelve-pack is not a solution. Give yourself permission to probe toward a resolution even when the fibers of your being are telling you to stop.

Willful Skepticism Keeps Us Stuck

Letting go of denial, fear, pride, shame, etc. is what helps us stop feeding the ducks, but being skeptical is what keeps us safe from the dangers of letting go, paralyzed with indecision and fear, and the mind convinces itself that indecision is the safest place to be.

Here’s what happens:

  1. You know there’s a problem because you see evidence of it.
  2. You’re then confronted with the reality of how hard it will be to disrupt the cause of the pattern. The mental heavy lifting is daunting.
  3. The mind doesn’t want to go back to old behavior because doing so would admit defeat.
  4. The mind compromises on indecision, where fantasies, wishes, and small victories live. This gives you part of the thrill without the risk of actual change.

Raven suggests looking at whether your behaviors, either knowingly or subconsciously, are in the way of you achieving a better quality of life and having less suffering. Also consider whether your brain is actively working against change in order to keep you in comfortable ambivalence. Sink into the idea of being aware of your own suffering.

The Paradox of Compassion

People often ask, “Isn’t compassion a good thing? How can it be a bad thing to help other people?”

According to Raven, unhealthy helping is a sickness of compassion occurring when good intentions go wrong. Compassion is beneficial to us and to society, “but when taken to an unhealthy extreme, the emotional energy behind codependence can be the culprit in a great deal of interpersonal conflict and suffering.”

So how do you know when it’s going too far? Raven gives some of the key questions such as, “Are there unforeseen factors that haven’t been considered?” and “Is my help even necessary or wanted?”

The compulsive compassion, or unhealthy helping is motivated by Reward Systems laid out later in the book. Specifically, Negative Reinforcement (the reward of avoiding a catastrophe) combined with a Variable Ratio Reward Schedule is an extremely strong (if not “addictive”) combination of motivating forces codependents must face down to have success.

These forces help create a “feedback-loop”, or a downward spiral of cause and effect which can keep you stuck, a slave to your own compulsions to feed your ducks.

Digging Out Of The Rut

“Why?” or “How did this happen to me?” inevitably becomes the question.

According to Raven, “We are psychologically wounded when we are blind-sided by something traumatic that happens to us. It can affect our sense of control, our sense of trust, our fear of abandonment, grief, and dependence just to name a few.”

This can create a particularly gnarly or sinister feedback loop in which we can be stuck for months or often years at a time. We develop entire schemas of belief around our traumas, and we wrap our identity right up with them.

While there are plenty of resources out there that take the next step in facilitating working back to healthier schemas, Raven offers this advice:

In order to begin to get out of your own way, the internal paradigm for how we see things must shift. We must challenge ourselves out of the safe, comfortable ruts we have built that inhibit true self-examination, growth and change.

A good initial strategy is to question your chain of beliefs: What you believe, why you believe it, and how those beliefs determine your habits and actions. In order to make this work, you’ll need to be aware of subtle beliefs that slip into your chain of logic.

Question your chain of beliefs. Before making decisions, before speaking, see what piece of logic or emotion compels you to say what you are saying or do what you are doing. Be bold in your willingness to pick apart the minutiae of your belief systems. Are you saying or doing something to invoke change in your life, or are your thoughts betraying your goals?

The book is chalked full of metaphors to help explain the concepts within, and Raven makes it easy to digest. If you’re suspicious that unhealthy helping or codependency may be a culprit in your life, Don’t Feed The Ducks is effective at getting you to take off the blinders and assess the truth for yourself.

About John Raven

John is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with the Oregon Board of Licensed Professional Counselors & Therapists. He uses empathic client-centered talk therapy and directive cognitive behavioral techniques, both which have strong research-based success correlations, as a part of his counseling practice. He has found effectiveness in helping clients develop insight through a combination of empathy and practical, skill based treatment. John’s degree is a Master’s of Science from Walden University in Mental Health Counseling. He is also a Certified Alcohol & Drug counselor (CADC level II) with the Addictions Counselor Certification Board of Oregon. You can find John at www.johnravencounseling.com or www.unhealthyhelping.com.