The Pros and Cons of a Shrunken Life: Psychotherapy as Release Valve

The cover story of the NY Times Magazine, “My Life in Therapy” by Daphne Merkin, […]

David Zahl / 8.13.10

The cover story of the NY Times Magazine, “My Life in Therapy” by Daphne Merkin, is jam-packed with insights, many of which are relevant to us here. I don’t know about you but I’ve always found the kneejerk suspicion of psychology in certain Christian ciricles pretty embarrassing (not to mention completely unnecessary). Indeed, we at Mockingbird are, by and large, strong proponents of good psychotherapy and counseling. ANYWAY, Ms. Merkin explores the pluses and minuses of “treatment” as only an expert patient can, coming alarmingly close to religious language throughout: on the con side, she acknowledges how (bad) psychotherapy can reinforce narcissistic patterns, that knowledge of those patterns, even an in-depth analysis of them, is rarely enough to change behavior. Understanding ourselves, our motivations and compulsions, may help in the honesty department, but it rarely carries over to the desire side of life; it’s akin to the difference between reading a menu vs. tasting the food, as they say… But while a good therapist cannot absolve or forgive, they can certainly provide the space we need to excavate and maybe even articulate the possibility ourselves. To connect with what we’re feeling in a way that allows us to actually feel negative emotion, rather than deny and thus be held captive by/to it (a particularly religious tendency, no?). Unflinching confession does go a long way, even longer the experience of being fully known and fully loved (or just listened to, period). Lord knows we could all use a little of the distance from ourselves that Merkin mentions – a little mercy from our inner diatribes – good thing the Gospel affords such healthy dis-identification with oneself and one’s “darker thoughts”!

To this day, I’m not sure that I am in possession of substantially greater self-knowledge than someone who has never been inside a therapist’s office. What I do know, aside from the fact that the unconscious plays strange tricks and that the past stalks the present in ways we can’t begin to imagine, is a certain language, a certain style of thinking that, in its capacity for reframing your life story, becomes — how should I put this? — addictive.

[Therapy] is a place to say out loud all that we have grown accustomed to keeping silent, in the hope that we might better understand ourselves and our missteps, come to terms with disowned desires and perhaps even find a more direct route to an effectively examined life. It provides an opportunity unlike any other to sort through the contents of your own mind — an often painfully circuitous operation — in the presence of someone who is trained to make order out of mental chaos. Although it is possible to view the whole exercise as an expensive self-indulgence — or, as its many detractors insist in one way or another, as the disease for which it purports to be the cure — psychoanalysis is the only game in town in which you are free to look and sound your worst the better to live up to your full potential.

Dr. A., whom I took to be in his 40s, was the only person in my life who paid close attention to my innermost being: I felt fully recognized by him, felt that he saw me as I was and that I could thus trust him with the bad as well as the good about myself. Who else besides a therapist, when it comes down to it, can you trust to accept all parts of you?

Happiness, as we all know, can’t be pursued directly, but what was the gain in tracking down every nuance of unhappiness, meticulously uncovering origins that left a lot to be desired but that could never be changed, no matter how skillfully you tried to reconstruct them?

All those years, I thought, all that money, all that unrequited love. Where had the experience taken me and was it worth the long, expensive ride? I couldn’t help wondering whether it kept me too cocooned in the past to the detriment of the present, too fixated on an unhappy childhood to make use of the opportunities of adulthood. Still, I recognized that therapy served me well in some ways, providing me with a habit of mind that enabled me to look at myself with a third eye and take some distance on my own repetitive patterns and compulsions.

Therapy, you might say, became a kind of release valve for my life; it gave me a place to say the things I could say nowhere else, express the feelings that would be laughed at or frowned upon in the outside world — and in so doing helped to alleviate the insistent pressure of my darker thoughts. It buffered me as well as prodded me forward; above all, it provided a space for interior examination, an education in disillusioned realism that existed nowhere else on this cacophonous, frantic planet.