The Freudian Mystique is culturally pervasive. People come to therapy hoping to find that dramatic flash of insight. That “ah-ha” moment when they can say “That’s it! That’s the reason! I bite my fingernails as a compensation for my mother’s ‘rejecting, withholding breast,’ at which I did not have a nurturing experience!”
Seriously. I’m not in the least making fun. The illustration is autobiographical. I bite my nails. Compulsively. Unconsciously. I’m ashamed of it. I have no clue why I do it or what it means. In some perverse way, it comforts and soothes me.
Whatever you think of Sigmund Freud, if he’s not in your top three Western Civilization Cultural Change Agents of the past 200 years, you haven’t been paying attention. By whatever name, people come to therapy hoping for psychoanalytic insight. People believe deeply that psychoanalytic insight will provide immense relief to them. People believe that psychoanalytic insight will prompt, evoke or even spontaneously cause change.
And neither belief is necessarily true. Insight is an oversold commodity. Sometimes a flat “bill of goods.” Often frustrating at best. OK, so now we know-that-we-know (as if we could ever know) that you bite your fingernails because breastfeeding didn’t go so well between you and your mother. What exactly is the victory in knowing that? And does it add or subtract one thing in your efforts to stop biting your nails? I doubt it.
People come to therapy looking for insight. And they tend to have expectations that the therapist is The Keeper of The Insights. First order of business for me with a lot of new patients? Dodge, debunk, demystify and otherwise disappoint these expectations.
Like the guy who comes to therapy with his wife after having been discovered in a fourth affair. She weeps. “I don’t know why I keep doing this,” he says, with utter sincerity — poignant, plaintiff, miserably helpless. He is looking for insight from me, The Keeper of The Insights. So I put on my “furrowed brow, thinking hard” face. Then I lift my brow, shrug, put on my “oh well, shot in the dark” face and say, “My teachers said, ‘Always start with the simplest explanation and go from there.’ ”
“What do you mean, simplest explanation?” he asks, taking the bait.
“Uh ... you really, really enjoy extramarital affairs? They are a total rush for you. Not just the secret, forbidden sex. But the whole cat-and-mouse, juggling identities thing. Affairs are a lot of fun for you.”
The pregnant, astonished pause tells me we’re making good progress.
Or the guy who uses a vile, misogynistic slur to degrade his wife. It rends her soul. He sits on the couch in couples therapy, like a man having a religious experience, watching her cry, rail, beg and plead for him to stop. Like a torture victim begging her torturer to stop.
He’s stunned. “I don’t know why I do that,” he says. He turns to me. “Why do I do that? It doesn’t make any sense. I love her. Why do I talk to her like that?”
The man doesn’t know the mental note I am making. I say to myself, “See, there it is again. The Post-Freudian Culture. This guy, in this moment, thinks the most pressing issue is to find an explanation — a psychoanalytic explanation — of why and how he can at once love someone and call that someone a (expletive).”
Again, I shrug, palms turned upward, empty handed. “I suppose we could tackle that question,” I say. “Spend the next 12 to 18 sessions digging into your childhood, your relationship with your mother, early bonding experiences, birth order ... and maybe we could find an answer to your question. But there’s a faster fix we might want to try first.”
“What’s that?” he asks.
“In school, we nicknamed it Nike Therapy,” I explain. “As in, Just Do It.”
“I don’t understand,” he says.
“You could decide the answer to your question is unimportant. That you might never be able to explain it, and that you don’t need to explain it. You could Just Do It.”
“Do what?” he says.
“You could just decide that it is simply beneath you, as a man, to ever, ever again speak to someone you love like that. For any reason. Ever again.”
The pregnant, astonished pause tells me we’re making progress.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.