Bozos on the Couch – What is ‘Good Therapy’ in a Time of Collapse?
I read Sally Erickson’s post on Energy Bulletin, and as a clinical psychologist, I gotta tell you, I found it sort of depressing. It wasn’t her criticism of psychotherapy. I understand her point about psychotherapy not healing a sick culture. James Hillman made the same point in “One Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and The World’s Getting Worse.” But golly, if we’re here anyway, shouldn’t we have some role as Peak Shrinks while the world as we know it collapses around us?
Psychotherapy wasn’t designed to heal a sick society, but proponents of psychotherapy have been calling our world a sick culture for quite a while. Harry Stacks Sullivan complained bitterly about it, when he was launching his own psychiatric practice during the Great Depression. The theory he developed talked a lot about the importance of honest, emotionally-connected relationships, and the lack of them in his time.
Therapists with a clear macro-view of the world realize that to be minimally effective, they are going to have to leave the therapy room and actually attempt to heal and repair the world, just as Sally has tried to do in her movie. But let’s talk about what relevant therapy is going to look like in the future.
I run a site, Peak Oil Blues, which is devoted to helping people face an energy-depleted future, full of climate change and a collapsing economy. When people write to me, telling me what they are going through, it isn’t enough that I sympathize and listen. I have to take seriously what they say they believe, and point out to them the responsibility their words leave them with. They may feel sad, depressed, anxious, and lonely or what have you, but acknowledging this is only a first step. If they don’t take action—really believe what they say they believe and take themselves seriously—they are in grave trouble. People can’t simply have their feelings as an end-point. Emotions are neurochemical blue-prints for action. Not being certain exactly WHAT to do is also not an excuse for inaction. Like an airplane pilot, we are required to self-correct constantly in order to remain adaptive to changing circumstances.
Any worthwhile therapy applied to our chaotic world, enables the individual to articulate just what they actually think about what’s going to happen to the world around them. Next, it provides them the chance to evaluate how they are living right this very minute, and whether or not they think this is the best way to live. If they don’t believe that their current lives will be productive in the future, it’s a call to action. They SHOULD feel anxious, worried, or what have you. These feelings are a warning device that should be heeded. In the old world, if a client walked out of my office and lives the same way as they did before they came in, I’m not doing good therapy. But in today’s world, that lack of constructive action may have a calamitous impact. Adapting to one’s situation isn’t the same as accepting it. It means the capacity to see yourself as an active participant, who owns up to what you think, and makes the necessary changes to live a more congruent life.
The therapy I advocate requires one to learn what it takes to differentiate from people around you, and from the dominant (sick) culture. It is a painful task, to be sure, but that’s the job. It isn’t to suck it up and put on a happy face. Many therapists, themselves, are too deeply enmeshed in the culture, too fearful of standing out, of being mocked, or too invested in ‘being liked,’ to encourage that sort of behavior in others. But therapy that encourages conformity isn’t going to be of much help in our rapidly collapsing world. What are we expected to conform to? Historical ways things ‘used to be?’
Having clients “put on a happy face” is successful therapy only for the handicapped therapist. But it shouldn’t be what good therapists aim for, because we know, ourselves, that the world is a very sick, handicapped place, and ‘fitting in’ leaves very sick and handicapped people. So what type of therapy can be helpful? We first have to accept a few givens:
Good therapy happens with flawed people. Being flawed isn’t a ‘problem’ in any real sense, it is part of the human condition. The problem also isn’t that we come from dysfunctional families. The problem is that we are grieving the fact that we had flawed families. The families of our childhood were flawed, and the families we live in now have problems, but does this somehow entitle us to remain hurt and wounded souls? Are we really permanently damaged by an unforgiving past and a harsh, overwhelming present? Therapy that focuses on healing our past wounds will quickly become out of date, as our present challenges begin to wash over us. A therapy for a changing future tells us that our past, while having shaped who we are, will not change…but we still have to.
Media Isn’t the Message
Where did we get this idea that our families should have been better places to grow up in, and because they weren’t, we are left as damaged souls? From the media. But can we expect a sick culture to paint an accurate picture of what good therapy truly is? A sick culture appeals to the narcissistically wounded, immature part of each of us, and feeds that narcissism. It tells us that our therapeutic goal should be to “heal our inner child.” But what do we have when we do that but an adult who is still a child inside? This sick culture encourages us to demand that our wounds be healed, and that we’re entitled to that healing. We’ve been wronged, and someone owes us. It promises with enough healing power—enough therapy, self-help books, workshops, etc—that we don’t have to be fat or in pain or aging or in debt. It sells us “transformational” work that gives us anything we want if, like Geppetto, we wish upon a star. If we buy this treatment or join this group, we’ll have better marriages or friendships, or our brother-in-law will stop being a jerk or we’ll be skilled in handling him, if he doesn’t. A sick culture tells us that if we pay our therapist’s fees, we’ll get a therapeutic cure and our life will be great.
In other words, it lies. Are we surprised?
The lies told by the dominant culture, and its media apparatus doesn’t tell the whole story. It is selling this lie, and it’s popular, because it is designed to be. The truth is a whole lot more complicated, and doesn’t sell on daytime television. Complicated truths make lousy ‘edu-tainment.’ The truth has no happy endings.
Real therapy tells the truth, despite being unpopular. It tells us that our expectations, carefully shaped by the dominant culture, are unrealistic and are implicitly designed to benefit the dominant class and the status quo. It tells us that we all don’t have ‘equal’ opportunities and we aren’t supposed to, by design. It tells us that horrendous hardship crushes us or makes us exceptionally strong people. It tells us that when we piss people off with our ‘truths,’ they may not want to talk with us anymore. It tells us that when we expect our parents or our kids or our families to give us what we think we’re entitled to, and when we rage at them when we don’t get it, they may lash out and try to put us in our place. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” is a Japanese saying that applies to many families, and this hammering is designed to protect our reputation and the reputation of our family name.
The dominant culture has sold us the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner where we all tell our “truth” and everyone listens carefully and sympathizes. The movies give us the pivotal “confrontational scene” where there is a big fight, and everyone tells everyone off, but by the end, they all start crying and hugging each other. The dominant culture tells us that others are suppose to be interested in what we ‘really think,’ that families are supposed to be ‘close’ and that friends are supposed to be ‘good listeners.’ And we are narcissistically wounded and furious when it doesn’t turn out like that. This is an insane expectation, and a good therapist tells us, in a way we can hear, that the real world just doesn’t work like that.
Sometimes people who are supposed to listen to us, are too tired, and don’t. Sometimes we have a falling out with our families, but we still can’t escape being related to them or enacting their dramas through our own. Sometimes friends, who were once so close, now share nothing in common. That’s nobody’s fault. It just happens. So, in the real world, if we’re adaptive, we don’t bemoan our fate, we just get on with it. We aren’t ‘repressing’ or ‘denying’ anything. We aren’t being dishonest with ourselves or others. We’re just accepting what the world is throwing at us, and we’re trying to handle it with some élan and sense of humor.
We figure out how to accept the really flawed families we were born into, or we suffer the pains of a cut-off with them. Most families (with some exceptions) do the best that they can with their kids, and most of those do a bit better than the families they grew up in. They probably didn’t live up to how we would have designed it, if we had the opportunity to write the script, but then again, it isn’t a movie, it’s our life.
I’ve been to growth group week-ends (one run by Erickson herself) where the exercises are designed to provoke ‘intimacy’ and ‘real connection.’ In 48 or 72 hours, we are supposed to be provided an ‘experience’ that gives us the ability to ‘relate’ and the strength to take this new-found ability and bring it into our real life. And we are shocked and dismayed when we try these same tactics on our unsuspecting spouses, friends, or families and they say “Kathy, stop being a weirdo.” Or “I don’t need to listen to that from you!” or, if they’ve attended a few workshops of their own they say“Thanks for sharing that” with a grim face that tells us they really don’t mean it.
I’ve stopped going to those types of events, because I believe they feed the same type of narcissistic entitlement that has caused serious problems for all of us. I’m happy to be ‘special just like everybody else.’ I’m not ‘entitled’ to have “deep meaningful friendships” or a “loving marriage.” If I want those things, I have to go through a long and arduous process of getting over myself enough to value it, and I’ll have to give up other things along the way to get it.
If I bought into the dominant culture’s notion of the Therapista, I’d never be one. I’m too fat, I’m from a working-class family, and haven’t learned how to act sophisticated or walk in those sling-back shoes. But most of us don’t live up to the dominant culture’s notion of most things, and I guess that’s just the point. If we’re lucky, we “have no shame” as my mother used to say, and it wasn’t a good thing, in her view to be shameless.
Shame is a social emotion that historically kept us acting according to culturally proscribed rules. Unlike guilt, that is internally generated, shame comes from the outside, even if those “outsiders” live inside our heads. When we break away from cultural rules, when we shame ourselves or our families, we risk being shunned by others in our community. In a fossil fuel-rich life, that doesn’t mean a whole lot, and nobody remembers when your Daddy danced naked around the neighborhood while drunk one night. A hundred years ago, his grandchildren would still be living with the shame of that night. Shame used to be a powerful motivator to “act decent.” While shame is still an emotion that monitors the range of choices we have in connecting to those around us, it’s a much greater range with less severe consequences when we violate those rules. It causes us to apologize for being a jerk, so others don’t dump us as a friend. While it might look dysfunctional in an energy-rich world, it may well transform itself into being its historically powerful self in the future. Now, being ostracized might mean having to move to a new town. In the future, it might mean being cut off from the very same people who have the power to keep us alive, or let us die.
It’s a bizarre and abnormal culture that even allows us to keep secrets. Most of the rest of the world, living in tiny hamlets or crowded tenements, find it impossible to keep secrets. Humans love secrets because it gives them something to connect with each other around. I’ll tell you my secret but “Don’t tell anyone!” You only tell your closest friend, and being a loyal friend to me, you swear them to secrecy. They tell their best friend, and before you know it, it’s not a secret anymore. “Don’t tell Kathy, but I was really hurt when she didn’t get me a birthday present.” Surprise! I show up with a ‘belated gift!’ Instead of being upset, we should rejoice in our efficient community network! In fact, the best way to spread the news is to say it is a secret. The only problem, of course, is that after a few tellings, it’s not the same secret at all!
Unlike Sally Erickson, I have secrets, but you, dear reader, can’t know them. It’s not because I’m ashamed of them. You can’t know because, why should you? You are a stranger to me. Strangers don’t deserve to know secrets, even though it is a lot easier to tell a stranger than it is an intimate other. We can always distance ourselves from a stranger, especially if we live in a big city. In a small town, strangers are harder to find.
Right now, saying “YOU’RE MY NEIGHBOR” means very little. Pretty soon, it will mean a whole lot, and you won’t need people like me teaching you how to be neighborly. You’ll either learn how to get along with those you live around, or you’ll be really sorry you didn’t. Circumstances will influence us in unimaginable ways. It is true that our ethnic enclaves of the 1950’s and 1960’s were overall a healthier bunch psychologically. It is also true that as the children of those immigrants grew up, got educated, and wealthier, and moved to the suburbs, they developed all sorts of neurotic unhappiness that their parents didn’t suffer from. But all was not dreamland in those ethnic villages and those tight-knit communities. It was a ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ situation. Our families were always messing in our business, and that messing and invasiveness and hovering and helping us, paradoxically kept us less clinically depressed, isolated, and alone. You did something wrong as a kid, and the neighbor physically disciplined you, and your mother knew about it before you got home, and beat you again. Those very connections we might think fondly of, brought the very parochial and intolerant attitudes many of us abhor today. They never forgot that your granddaddy danced naked in 1948, and they still call you “from that strange family” because of it. It was a time when ‘reputation’ mattered, and mattered a lot. You shut the windows when you had a marital fight, so the neighbors wouldn’t hear. It will be a long, strange road back to anything resembling that parochial neighborliness in our future communities.
When our neighborhoods are defined by the five-to-ten miles around our homes, we’ll be forced to learn new skills, and being diplomatic will count a whole lot more than honesty all by itself. As therapists, we’d do well to encourage our clients to appreciate the qualities of human connections and interactions by doing thoughtful, tangible and useful things for others in our neighborhood, without an expectation of an immediate payoff. When we learn to be helpful and constructive to others, our oddness or emotional damage will become less important than the way we go about salvaging our humanity. We may well find ourselves in a time when it will be a rare person who has escaped true hardship. Right now, one of every six workers in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed. What will our job as psychotherapists be when that number grows to one in five or even one in three?
The question we have the luxury of answering now is no longer are we odd or damaged people. Most of us are. The issue is whether we can find ourselves embedded in a community of people, who say “I like you, despite how odd you are.”
Real therapy that prepares us for tomorrow teaches us about personal boundaries, today. It let’s us know that we aren’t supposed to tell the guy on the street our deepest, darkest, most painful secrets, even if it is modeled on television. Exhibitionists go on television and share all the family secrets, and the TV therapist pretends to care and offer advice, but we all know that it’s a sham. It’s for our entertainment. It is the modern-day ‘bread and circus.’ We have to start modeling a different message, one that says that privacy isn’t the same as shameful secrecy.
Rather than learning to speak more honestly, (a skill I value, highly, by the way), I think that the true therapist encourages people to do more listening and do more real honest work with other people they live around. Meaningful work means local work that will heal and repair the world around you. I admit that having learned the skills of a clinical psychologist, and worked long and hard with the “King of Radical Honesty” Brad Blanton, I’m tempted to want to turn everything into a nail I can hammer. But in my current opinion, it is way too late to ONLY keep talking, without accompanying it with appropriate action. It is way too late to embroil myself IN myself, and expect other people to be fascinated by my current self-revelations. Self-censoring isn’t the same as shame-filled lying in a culture filled with hapless child-adults.
Learning to quiet our anxieties and manage them on our own is an essential skill for negotiating the frightening world we are facing. It is time to be understanding and connect with each other, our neighbors, through action, not words alone. When we do necessary work together, to heal and repair our neighborhoods, the emotional connections, the joy in companionship, the meaningful bonds we yearn for, appear.
Meaningful connections may be much more diverse than we initially imagined, and may have very little to do with the things we say to each other. We may learn that ‘this one doesn’t follow through’ on details but she tells hilarious jokes. We learn that that one truly is vain about his waistline, and insults fat people, but his rudeness is overlooked because he freely teaches people how to fish. This one cries at the drop of a hat, and takes things personally, but she always shows up with delicious food, and that one always runs out after the tearful one and says “He didn’t mean it.” (even when he did…) We may need to learn how to like each other, just like in kindergarten, where we learn not to hit or say cruel things if we want other people to play with us. We may come to realize that when we sing songs all together, it works better to heal our sharp words, than hours of talk trying to resolve differences. But this will grow out of adult understandings that will accompany our adult responsibilities to maintain a functioning community—for its own survival.
No where will this adult emotional management be more important than in our most intimate adult relationships. It is why I like couples therapy so much. I love it when a couple gets to the point where they realize that they actually love that sick, screwed up individual that’s sitting next to them on my couch. They do, and sometimes for the most irrational reasons. They like how ‘delightfully demented’ they are. But I don’t tell anyone that my therapy office is a “safe place.” Whatever they say in my room to me or their spouse, is fair game once they walk out the door. I can’t control that, and I don’t pretend I can. The best I can do is to encourage them to say what they’re willing to stand by, and own up to. I also tell them that one benefit of an intimate relationship is the willingness to have someone tell you what they really think of you. Your partner will kick you in the butt, because it is a whole lot easier than kicking themselves in the butt. They are counting on YOU changing, because heaven knows that they’ve tried to change themselves unsuccessfully, and now you’re their only hope for things to be different. I know my work is done when one spouse says to another “You better hold me to my own highest standards, or I’ll lose respect for you!”–when one person is inviting the other to kick butt…the speaker’s butt. And a funny thing happens when we start to take ourselves on:..other people stop having to do it. When we take ourselves on, we become a whole lot freer about being flawed individuals. We’re also a lot more fun to be around.
I’m sort of frightened by what a truly healthy, honest, loving community would look like. I probably would be kicked out, first thing. It would have to be filled with healthy, honest, loving people, and I’ve only met a few of them in my life, and boy are they scary! I liked them, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t really imagine a room full of them! They give the rest of us a bad name! Instead of waiting for the world to catch up to that expectation, I think I’ll just enjoy the flawed, annoying, lying whack-jobs I live around and hope they enjoy me, as well.
Ongoing suffering is ongoing because we are the monkeys with our hand in a glass jar, holding on tightly to the apple. We can’t pull our hand out of the jar if we are holding on to the apple, and we want to pull our hand out. We also want the apple. You only get one choice, and you want two. That’s not a problem, that’s a reality principle.
So we therapists who’ve looked into the terrifying realities of a crashing economy, a changing climate, and an energy-depleted future have to support and be sympathetic, yes. We have to understand and respect our clients deeply. But we also have the obligation to tell them the truth, which is that we have no secrets to take away their pain, or to alter their futures. The best we can do is to assure them that the truth, regardless how terrifying it might be, still beats out a delusional view. And, if we believe it ourselves, we can tell them that despite it being incredibly hard, it can also be delightfully sweet, and hysterically funny…but we have to let go of the apple, first. If you want to create a new kind of human, go ahead and try. But my preference is to adapt to and be grateful for the Bozo’s I’m living among.