Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Donald Williams
We enter the psychotherapist's office when our stories fail us. We hope that this therapist will show genuine interest in us, understand our story, and say something helpful. Chances are, we will walk anxiously into the room with as much fear as hope.
Donald Williams, Jungian analyst (Boulder, Colorado)
from The Educated Heart (a work in progress)
We enter the psychotherapist's office when our stories fail us. We hope that this therapist will show genuine interest in us, understand our story, and say something helpful. Chances are, we will walk anxiously into the room with as much fear as hope. Perhaps this therapist will frighten or reject us, and perhaps we will want to reject her. We don't know if we'll like the room, the therapist's taste, appearance, or voice. We certainly haven't read all or perhaps any of the books on her bookshelves. Maybe this person won't understand the story we're here to tell. Maybe we'll leave feeling worse, maybe exposed and shamed. We have no guarantee that this therapist can help us. All of this uncertainty adds to our anxiety. We aren't even sure how talking with this stranger will help. And we can't forget that psychotherapy costs money. It's not easy being a patient.
The psychotherapist follows us into the room. She knows this room intimately. She feels comfortable in this familiar room with her pictures and her furniture. The clock faces her, and she can see when the session is almost over while we have to look conspicuously at our watch. She's knows that she's in charge, and she's faced this scene with every other patient she's treated. She has read the books on the bookshelves and listened to far more stories than we have. With her books, diplomas, and years of experience sitting first in the patient's chair (we should hope) and later in the therapist's chair, our therapist is ready with her storytelling skills. She needs this self-assurance because she may meet someone smarter and more articulate than her, perhaps someone sicker than she is prepared to meet, or for reasons known only to her, someone frightening.
When our therapist makes interpretations and tells storiesespecially in this private, sound-proofed roomshe can be very persuasive. She gets to develop her story and choose her words carefully while watching and listening to us as we talk, sit silently, or look to her for reassurance. We look at her in her comfortable chair in her room surrounded by her objects of power and looking intently at us, and we attribute power to her whether or not she claims it. When she speaks, she possesses credible, well-published theories that help her stories sound convincing. She can talk comfortably about unconscious conflicts, forbidden impulses, narcissistic injuries, psychological defenses, developmental struggles, and the strategies of character.
As the patient we suffer a disadvantage. We have only one therapist and depend on her while she has many patients andwe assumemore independence and power. We are expected to "tell all" while she has a protected private life. Not a minute passes without a chance to notice these differencesif there is a silence, we know that we are supposed to speak, and while she asks us intimate questions, we know that we cannot ask these same questions of her. She knows our home phone number but we don't know hers. She can say somethinga word only, or just a few sentences in a calm voiceand we can immediately feel understood and soothed but we don't know what, if anything, we do for her.
These asymmetries of power and identity should not be mistaken for inequality. When our therapist closes the door to her consulting room and sits down with us, she has different tasks, different stories to tell. She works as hard and risks, sometimes, as much as we do. She needs to know when to speak, especially when not to speak, what to say to sharpen our conflicts and emotions (but not too much) and what to say to help us understand and manage these conflicts and emotions. She should be quick, clear, articulate, empathic, resilient, and one hundred percent present. Just as our stories fail us, so can her theories fail her and fail the people she cares for, other patients like us. Her theories are not diamond-bodied truths but rather stories that should change with hanging conditions. To keep her stories honorable, she needs to reflect, read, imagine freely, feel more, listen better, and go on revising her own theories. The work will affect her as it changes us though this may not be so noticeable to either of us.
If this therapy of ours works, we will discover that we are evenly matched collaborators and authors. When all is said and done, her task is no easier than ours. We are more powerful than we imagined, and her authority is more precarious than either of us is likely to admit. As the stories we tell keep changing and we change with them, we hopefully discover that this work benefits both of us, that we both have reason to appreciate the hours and hours out of our short lifetimes that we spend together.
We enter psychotherapy because we suffer. We want to suffer less, be happier, gain confidence, live competently, and experience life meaningfullythese are the only obvious reasons to enter psychotherapy. This is the uncontroversial story we tell ourselves, our families and friends, and our health insurance carriers.
Unconsciously, however, I think we engage in psychotherapy to experience the possibilities of character. We want to know who we are beneath the stories other people tell about us and the ones we routinely recite. Just what are we doing with this life, with this experiment of ours? What is the story we are trying so hard to tell? Most of us feel like the patient who said, "I want to be a better person"better, not only happier. We enter therapy because we are unhappy, we stay because we begin to feel healthier, but we stay longer and keep thinking psychologically because we are fascinated with character. We want to know why we tell the stories we tell about ourselves and othersthe stories that define characterand we want to tell better stories.
Psychotherapy is where we explore character todayweek after week in a quiet, secure office. We learn with another person to pursue any fragment of our experience with all the interest, intelligence, and empathy we can muster. We learn to appreciate the complexity and force of character. We start to think and feel deeper and differently about ourselves and other people. Dreams, fantasies, memories, emotions, and thoughts all receive the same devoted psychological attention. The attending and reflecting we practice in therapy is democraticevery story we can tell deserves a voice and our thoughtful respect.
We have always had a love affair with character. For the Greeks, characteraretéwas the aim of all education. The Greek character ideal began with the strength and skill of a warrior or athlete and came eventually to the virtues of heroic valor, moral courage, and devotion to truth. From Achilles and Heracles to Athene, Odysseus, Alexander, Oedipus, and Socratestheir Greek stories have fed Western culture for more than twenty-five centuries. Since the Greeks, others added the character ideals of the stoic, the knight, the saint, the Virgin, the Renaissance man, the romantic, humanist, scientist, visionary, the well-analyzed person, and more.
One of our most dramatic experiments with character and relationship was courtly, romantic love. In eleventh century France courtly lovers and troubadours devoted themselves to romantic, forbidden, unquenched love. They esteemed their beloved, practiced sexual abstinence, and turned their desire and suffering into poetry. Courtly lovers were musicians and poets, cultured celebrants of character. Human love had never been so ennobledthis new love could even transcend the love of God. Because courtly love rivaled religious passion, the Pope eventually forbade it.
For the first romantics, character was the "crown of love."(1) Love built character in lovers (mostly but not always men) and in their beloved. Today psychological love provides new mirrors and new lyrics to build character in people we call patients and therapists. I want to make this controversial comparison between courtly love and psychological work to remind us that psychotherapy is a revolutionary experiment in relationship. The cultural roots of the psychological experiment with character reach beyond the comfortable medical tradition Freud claimed for it. Remember, for example, that the analytic relationship first opened up when Freud's older colleague, Josef Breuer, "devoted" hours day after day listening to onebelovedpatient who "transferred" her love to him. Psychoanalysis began with an emotionally, erotically charged relationship, not with clinical tests and scientific protocols.(2)
A new world needs a new ideal of character. I hope to show that psychotherapy gradually created and now fosters a new idealthe responsive character. The old ideal was hierarchical, authoritarian. It was beneficent at best, violent at worst. The old hierarchical ideal still drives fundamentalist movements of all kinds and the economic exploitation of people and places.
The practices of psychotherapytalking about conflicts, reflecting rather than acting, and going on talkingall encourage a new character ideal. I think we can now measure psychological well-being by our capacity to respond empathically and insightfully to ourselves and to others. I think we will soon learn to measure well-being also by our readiness to respond intelligently to this fast-changing global village. Scientific iscoveries, technological revolutions, economic upheavals, and environmental necessities push us to become quickly responsive. We know too much to "let nature take its course"too much about genetics, atmospheric chemistry, seismology, physics, and psychology and too much about the consequences of pollution, overcrowding, poverty, illiteracy, and psychological trauma to remain passive. Perhaps we will learn to like the startling complexity of the world today and go to meet the new responsibilities that await us. But what do these big world problems have to do with psychotherapy? Just as once unspoken childhood fantasies, traumas, desires, and family tragedies found their way into psychotherapy, so will the dreams and nightmares of the larger world find their place. We have new words for new psychological experiences, and I think we will gradually find a new language for psychological conversations about the human family.
Let me tell a story. Let's say that people now expect the future to be dramatically different from yesterday and today. After all, anyone twenty or older has seen enough surprises to expect accelerated events in the future. Many of us have gone from radio days to cable TV stereo heaven, from the Cold War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, from clumsy portable typewriters to notebook computers and information highways. Even in the most remote parts of the world people have traded in tribal clothes and ways for Ag hats, Levis, and Toyota pickup trucks. What's next?
Let's say that big changes are in the air, that the approaching millennium actually means something, that it's not an arbitrary marker. We expect big events: Maybe a "rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born," a technological utopia, a hot greenhouse planet, or even the end of our species. We know something's coming but we're not sure what. We don't want to be surprised and blinded, caught dumb-eyed and still like deer in speeding headlights.
We work our way to the year 2000 with questions. As we approach the millennium, who's responsible for what? What can we enjoy and how much do we have to sacrifice? Whose stories will define our reality?
That's the question: Whose stories will define our reality? Will our story be among those to cross over to the next century? Will we leave future generations an earth as beautiful and diverse as we can manage? Will the diversity of human culture shrink or grow? Can we transform urban violence and war? Will we create, for the first time, a humane world? Perhaps we will become better lovers of diversity, emotionally intelligent engineers and scientists, respectful guardians of life. Perhaps not. Individuals, one by one, will decide these questions in conversations with other individualstalk is that powerful.
From the Fiji Islands comes this modern line: "The world is just talk. If you know how to talk, there is nothing at all you cannot get with it." Spoken by Tui, a citizen of Yanuyanu.(3)
Psychotherapy is one place for conversation. I believe that therapists and patients cooperated and still cooperate to create credible, richly effective, and sometimes inspired stories of the human condition. Any worthwhile psychological theory, story, or practice, however, will change with the changing conditions of life. In the 21st century we will need new stories and practices for new timesnot grandiose visions, just new, respectful, workable stories. I consider analytic, long term psychotherapy a still radical form of conversation, a place for telling and refining stories. I am sure that we do not know the limits of these psychological conversations or of their creative power.
Personally, I would like some idea of where we're headed, a glimpse of the possible trajectories from the stories that may shape the start of another century, or if you like, another millennium. Which stories will define the world we know? As a therapist, I want to know how we can carry the practices of analytic therapy into the world. I do not want to see the psychoanalytic experiment replaced by short "managed" conversations. How can we open these conversations even further? How can we bring global stories into our personal psychological lives and into the consulting room? These questions are part of The Educated Heart.
1. Andreas Capellanus. The Art of Courtly Love. (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1968) p. 6.
2. Despite prevailing opinions among psychotherapists and analysts, Carl Jung provided the scientific support for Freud's theory of repression and scientific credibility for psychoanalysis through his rigorous clinical research with the word association experiment.
3. Andrew Arno. The World of Talk on a Fijian Island. (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing Corp., 1993) p. 1.