How Self-consciousness Misleads Us: The “Rock” Guitar Story

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Everyone will know. Everyone will know how you embarrassed yourself. Friends and strangers, both. They will see the perspiration and hear the stammering. Your face shall transform into a tomato-like ball of redness. It might as well get sold at a fruit market.

Yes, someone will make a video, too, making you an international laughing-stock. Forever.

We fear the worst and fear takes us over. We become hostage to worry. We crawl inside the fear and are devoured. Fear surrounds us, breathes into us, and binds us. We are trapped.

Only it’s not true. We’ve all lived moments like the one in the story I’m about relay. Not identical to this event, but just as excruciating and permanent, we thought. Not so bad after all, I hasten to say.

“Rock” was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. A remarkable scholar, a shining academic star. Black wavy hair already flecked with gray — he made an impression. He was gifted with words on paper and with words he spoke. “Rock,” a nickname belying a less than chiseled physique, would come to win two awards for teaching at another prestigious university. Rich Adelstein, his real name, remains one of the few people who is eloquent without a script.

Playing the guitar, however, is something else. Always was. And music is what his friends asked him to make at their wedding. “Just for a few minutes; anything you want. You’ll be a star!”

How could Rock say no? He chose a Bach transcription, not more than three minutes long.

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The day came. A torrid day in a sweltering summer. Rock knew the piece by heart, had played it many times in the privacy of his apartment. There, Bach was effortless, fluent. But at a wedding, in front of lots of people?

You sweat the anticipation. You count the time. The sands of the hourglass push down and the hands of the hooded hangman place the noose. Tightening, tightening. There is no escape. Your expected participation is public knowledge. You can’t claim illness without betraying cowardice, conscience, and comrades.

The moment arrived. Rock sat in the chair in front of perhaps 200 wedding-well-wishers. His fingers, unlike his voice, were not the part of himself he trusted.

The perspiration began even before the first note. More notes, more perspiration. Our boy’s arm pits oozed. His winter-weight, flannel suit – the only one he owned – was soaking through. The sweat came in waves, like the kind that sweep you off your feet and carry you out to sea. The guitarist’s mind was overwrought with the terror of public humiliation. His brain buzzed. The shining brilliance of Rock’s head, always full of ideas, was now brilliant and shining for an uncustomary reason. My friend was barely above water, caught in a whirlpool, capsizing in a feverish river of illuminated perspiration and panic.

Rock’s fingers moved on their own, to the good. They were, however, getting harder to motivate. “A little while longer. If I can go on for a little while longer,” he said to himself. His digits seemed to get larger, like plump sausages; unbendable, heavy. Stiffening. And then, the unimaginable: his fingers went on strike. The unreliable labor force stopped laboring.

True, a single moment of silence was not inappropriate. But a moment is not 15-seconds, or 30-seconds, or a minute. Time transformed, became timeless. Rock stared at the stationary digits.

No vibration. Eternity. Strain. Second upon second upon second. How many?

Finally, the music began to sound. By sheer force of will the piece was finished.

The audience applauded. No shouts or cheers. Surely everyone knew. How could they miss a suit doubling as swim wear? Surely they were talking about him, giggling about Rock, feeling sorry. Surely people would remember.

A reception followed. The man of words had no words to describe his mortification. Yet, no one looked at him more than anyone else. No comment on his dampness. A few even told him they enjoyed the performance. Not a soul asked “What happened?” or “Are you OK? We worried about you.”

A woman appeared. Middle-aged. A stranger, well-dressed, with a cultured, intellectual aura.

“Oh, God,” Rock thought.

“I really enjoyed your performance,” she said with enthusiasm. “The dramatic pause, in particular!”

She wasn’t kidding. The disqualifying paralysis – the moment of ruin – was to her the creative highlight.

Life went on: a life of accomplishment, good works, and recognition. An admirable life, untouched by momentary catastrophe. Indeed, a catastrophe in one place alone: the mind.

Most of us have had some version of this experience. And survived. People usually notice less than we think. Most disasters are temporary. Even when the audience does recognize a difficult situation, they tend to forget. The event is replaced by another, newer story. We are much more concerned with our own lives than the lives of others. Thus, our daily tasks, relationships, victories, failures, deadlines, and distractions allow little room for concentration on another’s momentary discomfort.

A few rules for the next time you have a “Rock” Guitar experience:

  1. Remember, “This too shall pass.”
  2. Your internal emotions and what others detect are not the same. You probably don’t look or sound as bad as you think.
  3. Don’t proclaim your inexperience, nervousness, or troubled state. Do not cue the audience to search for problems they would otherwise likely miss. Do not apologize afterward.
  4. However bad the day, you will soon be yesterday’s news, replaced by some other event. More probable still, the crowd’s preoccupation returns to what we all spend most of our time thinking about: ourselves.
  5. Remind yourself that you are not unique. Even professional athletes drop baseballs in front of 50,000 people in the stands and millions watching on TV.

Not convinced you will live to fight another day? That your bad moment will go unnoticed or be forgotten? Then I am forced to tell you about the most inappropriate, politically incorrect, embarrassing experience of my life. This is a story you can’t top. No one ever has: Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness.

The top image is called  Guitarist Little Girl (Dorothy Takacz) — Budapest, Hungary by Takkk. The second photo is entitled Drops of Sweat by Bibikoff. Next comes Finish Line by Thomas Sørenes. The final image is a photo of Musician Third Class Gabriel Brown, at the Jerudong International School, 2011. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This post is a revision of an earlier essay publish on this site.

Is Infidelity More Than a Matter of Sex?

One morning Gregor S. realized his wife was more interested in the vacuum cleaner than she was in him. No, not in a perverse way. She simply wanted to keep bugs and dirty things out – everything else in its place – more than sex with her spouse. Priorities were thus arranged. The house was spotless, her marriage immaculate and chaste. Their children, Gregor reminded himself, were the fruits of a different stage of history, when the carnal batteries were juiced; before his wife’s facial expression alone told him, “Don’t even think about it.”

Frau Samsa began the romance with the promise of fidelity and still lived by the letter of her oath: no other man enjoyed her charms. The husband, however, expected ranking ahead of cleaning supplies.

Sex was like a Christmas toy, the thing you once raced downstairs for, soon consigned to a dusty closet shelf. When those bygone fleshly episodes came to mind, Mr. S. alternated among moods of wistful remembrance, moments of serious conversation with his beloved, and angry comments.  Temporary changes resulted, as fleeting as sound and smoke, to paraphrase Goethe.

When had this metamorphosis in his bedroom occurred, he wondered? What was Greg to do now?

The master masturbated, immediate service always at hand. His eyeballs scanned internet pornography, a turn-on without risk of rejection: where video women invite touch by anyone watching. Impersonal, of course.

Mr. Samsa did not wish to cheat or pay for sex. The guy wondered, however, whether months of abstinence again qualified him as a virgin.

In the USA, he’d be labeled a cad had he found a mistress. Society would say he had no cause, if it considered cause at all.

I treated more than a few such men. Usually middle-aged. A buddy told me he heard the same story from several guys at our 40th high school reunion. Sadness claimed them more than anger.

Another couple. In their 30s. The wife was gorgeous, saucy, bright. Her husband wasn’t interested enough in the sensual part of their marriage. On the other hand, he played lots of softball, an activity for which he was enthusiastic and energetic. The excuse to this wife? “Gee, I’m too tired now.”

One could make a long list of activities preferred over coupling by the sexually disinterested: intimate time with friends, focus on children, allegiance and availability to parents, church tasks, and work. Even reading. When relationship problems surface (all marriages have them in their course) one partner may say sex must wait until understanding is first achieved. Not always. Sex does, at times, help repair a frayed connection.

Let’s expand the definition of fidelity. My guess is the unstated commitment to another includes conversation, interest, and concentration as well as passion. Respect, tenderness, and devotion, too. Does the word fidelity apply to those who show regular contempt for a partner; neglect or indifference? Does taking the other for granted break the marital promise? Can the failure to defend and support a spouse in society fracture the unwritten covenant? Are loyalty and constancy words only applied to the sex of things?

An ancient Buddhist teaching says there are five ways a husband should minister to his wife:

By honoring her, by not disparaging her, by not being unfaithful to her, by giving authority to her, by providing her with adornments. (From DN 31: Sigãlaka Sutta; III 180-81, 187-91).

The wife has a similar list. Note that sexual fidelity is allowed no prominence.

An affair can happen without premeditation. We look. There is a spark. For a man, the tinder is almost always dry. But, no adultery for heterosexuals is possible in the absence of willing, interested, or instigating women. Once the dalliance is over, the relationship with the spouse might continue as before, assuming there is no revelation of the indiscretion. Meanwhile, other bond-breaking actions can be chronic, more intentional: criticism, humiliation, rejection, avoidance … How do you weigh the physical vs. the emotional, one vs. the other?

Please understand me. My questions are not rhetorical: posed as if I had a definite answer. The domain is complex, the choices agonizing.

Different models of commitment exist beyond the North American heterosexual variety. Among gays, allowance is often made for other physical contacts even in committed relationships. Does this risk throwing-over the partner? I imagine it does, but mostly in an already unsatisfying partnership. I have no data here, so am open to enlightenment from gay readers.

In this uncertain territory I claim certainty about one thing alone: that spouses usually promise more than sexual fidelity when they join; at least if wedlock is driven by love instead of necessity, security, or lust alone.

If you believe extra-marital amour is always unjust, realize a marriage can die in multiple ways, not only that one. The worm in the rose bed takes many forms. Relationships crack when understanding is missing and a partner is lonely: where the chill of an adjacent body is unrelieved, and both magic and kindness have disappeared. Couples therapy only works when each party’s part is faced.

Moral superiority dependent solely on your avoidance of other beds may be a mirage.

The top screen shot comes from the 1950 movie, In a Lonely Place, a Columbia picture starring Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart. The photo below is a software-generated landscape created with a program named Terragen, this one the work of Fir0002. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thirty-three Things a Man Should Know

The internet is full of lists of the skills a man should master. They are usually offered as advice to the young, uncertain male. Such articles were around in my youth and decades before. The Stoics, in particular, attempted to define what “a man” consisted of. Women need the list of manly tasks as much as men do: the better to bypass those men who don’t have “the right stuff” or any desire to learn more than they know.

I am about to ignore the wise admonition, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” and offer you my own list. God help you. Not complete, but more psychological than most. You might have guessed as much. The catalog will focus on urban talents – the things best fit to the city – over rural skills or physical survival abilities, like escaping a bear attack.

Here goes:

  • Learn to tie a Windsor Knot. Most men can’t create a triangular, symmetrical knot in their neck tie. “Not” good.
  • Make eye contact: the kind that shows kind interest. You are paying attention and unafraid. Avoid the scary variety.
  • Be able to tell a clean joke. Practice until you can. Humor is sexy, so I’m told.
  • Know how to lead. If you are waiting for the recognition you deserve – for the crowd to realize a great man is in their midst – you may have time to read an encyclopedia. Raise your hand and take charge.
  • Understand investments. Do not rely on the wisdom of those who want to sell you stocks in return for a commission. Dozens of books exist to guide you. Start with A Random Walk Down Wall Street.
  • Dismiss 80% of what other people say about you, the good and the bad, but recognize the 20% you should take to heart.
  • Learn to shoot a gun. Love or condemn firearm use, as you wish, but do try to enhance your understanding of its discipline and power.
  • Be able to apologize. Don’t be one who regularly blames his failures on others.

  • Practice forgiveness, but not until you’ve dealt fully with the hurt and anger inside.
  • Become adept at giving speeches, toasts, and telling stories. Just you in front of an audience, a form of public nakedness with your clothes on.
  • Don’t merely stand up for yourself, but for something more important than yourself, too. Live your values. Recognize how you fool yourself. Trust me, you do.
  • Give a man’s handshake. Neither squishy nor bone crushing.
  • Childhood is a time to push back your tears. Maturity is a time to permit your eyes to moisten.
  • Learn how to sample and evaluate wine when the waiter presents a bottle to you.
  • Become adept at a sport no later than your entry to school. Best if you choose the most popular team competition in your region. Personal stature is enhanced by this, a standing of benefit for your first 20 years or more. The camaraderie will be cherished for the rest of your life.
  • Drill yourself on keyboarding and cursive writing. You need to communicate. A handwritten letter conveys even more weight, personal consideration, and intimacy than in the time before keyboards.
  • Learn how to do things face-to-face: job interviews, asking someone on a date, returning merchandise. Ending a relationship, too. Don’t hide behind a phone call or, worse still, your email and twitter account.
  • Become proficient in negotiation.
  • Listen to people, not only what they say, but what is not said. Psychological-mindedness must be developed, not assumed. Don’t think, in amazement, “He isn’t logical.”  You are expecting too much of the human race if you do.
  • Practical skills: ironing clothes, cooking, changing a diaper, shuffling cards, buying clothes, etc.
  • Buddies don’t count every nickel when trying for the impossibility of perfect equity over a friendly meal. Make friends and accept their short-comings or tell them the problem.
  • Learn to climb a rope. Once done, you will recognize that what first seems impossible is not.
  • Always keep a serious book in mind.

  • Do not delay your pursuit of women until you “understand” them. Rejection is part of the game and may say more about the rejector than the rejectee. In my clinical practice I encountered many ladies who first deflected a man who would become a mate. Develop resilience in the face of discouragement. Defeat is a facet of every life, except for those who hide behind the barricade.
  • Say I love you. Get to the point of being able to tell people why they matter to you, not just women.
  • Expose yourself to ideas that may not resonate at first. Learn to think critically, read critically, listen critically. If all you know is what you’ve heard – blindly accepted – you know little.
  • Become acquainted with the enormous power of waiting. There are times when people will move toward you because of the magnetic force of your stillness. And silence. Many run from a wild pursuit. Practice patience.
  • Know some expressions in a foreign language. Master in detail at least one area of knowledge beyond your work, sports, and auto racing.
  • Identify your dark side or become its victim. The things you do not acknowledge about yourself will control you.
  • Be able to make small talk.
  • Practice kindness and respect for the worth of every person.

  • Find out about making it and taking it. A man doesn’t always ask permission. The doors of life must be identified and understood. Sometimes they are wide open and friendly. Sometimes they are closed until you knock for attention and advance. Locked portals must be respected or broken down, including those inside of you. Obstacles needn’t deter you from making a claim.

Much of what I’ve written is about a life in the urban West. Were I an Eastern philosopher, the list would be different. But, at least one more Buddhist-influenced suggestion should be added.

  • When you converse with someone about ideas, try to efface your ego: lose your “self.” Listen to the thoughts and speak the thoughts (and their justification) without prejudice or attachment to your position. Permit the logic of your dialogue to be “authorless,” without concern over whose notions will “win.” What I’ve described doesn’t happen much in the places most of us live, but perhaps giving up the necessity of victory is the essential step toward learning something new.

—–

The top painting is A Portrait of an Unknown Man by Antonello da Messina. Next comes Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI – 1913. Claggett Wilson’s WWI painting follows: Flower Death – the Bursting of a Heavy Shell – Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells. Finally, the Roraima Cliffs by Paulo Fassina. Wikiarts is the source of the first two. The Wilson painting comes from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons is the source of the Fassina photograph.

Do We Expect too Much from Our Romantic Relationships?

Those who are old enough and wise know every honeymoon ends. “Well, my marriage is still really good, but … ” Hard to give an honest answer here, except to your best friend – perhaps. The question emerges: do we expect too much from our relationships?

The romantic ideal or soul mate is a recent invention. The span of history reveals marriages made for lots of unromantic reasons beginning with simple survival, sex, and procreation. Add the use of marriage to cement political alliances between countries, a big dowry to benefit the receiving family, and the safety net women needed in societies offering them no place as a solo act. Socrates, some suggest, married a woman he didn’t care for because a good citizen was expected to produce males to serve and defend the state.

Such relationships didn’t shoot for sexual compatibility, a like sense of humor, or shared child-rearing philosophies. Bad couplings survived to avoid scandal and church community condemnation. Personal fulfillment, for females in particular, didn’t enter the picture. Happiness as a “right” was not in the conversation.

Times change. We believe in the notion of a soul mate, at least in the West: marriage for love and for life to a partner who completes us. In my parents’ heyday, mid-20th century America, once married you were expected to make public social appearances only with your spouse – other than allowances for amusements like athletics or card games. You were a matched-pair to the world and treated as a unit. Routine presentation of yourself by yourself triggered questions. “Where is Joan?” “Where is Steve?” Whispers followed. Take more steps, and you risked social condemnation and religious ostracism.

The unrecognized dilemma today is this: can any individual fulfill the other over an ever-longer lifetime? Will the marriage grow stale well before the spouse dies? Is love crushed under the drop-hammered pressure to meet expectations? Can the partner be superlative at all the roles we posit as the romantic ideal: sexual wizard, protector/defender, sparkling and encyclopedic conversationalist, comforter, therapeutic listener, and take-no-prisoners bread-winner; matched to you in child-rearing style and devotion, values, religion, and political party? A person who recognizes your uniqueness while acknowledging your status, preciousness, and liberty, too. Providing security and excitement, both.

The assumption I’m challenging is the notion that, if he or she is the “right one,” no one else is needed. He is enough. You will be filled to overflowing by the “everything” bottled within the human container who sleeps beside you, leans over, and pours his understanding, intellect, and emotions into you; instinctively knowing whenever you need to be “topped off” (in the gasoline/petrol tank sense of the phrase).

Perhaps it was easier in my parents’ America. Neither thought about witty intellectual repartee or personal fulfillment. They wanted appreciation from the spouse, a joint effort at financial survival (mostly engineered by the man), and kids (mostly cared for by the woman). Men and women of the time were rarely intimate – sharing feelings, “communicating” – in the way we think of intimacy today. No one even talked about the idea.

Child rearing philosophy? The parents in my boyhood environs imagined they’d do what came to mind when the situation called for it – if they considered the question at all. More is wanted now, especially by the female (who seeks equality and perhaps a career outside the home). Attitudes toward sex have changed, too, an enormous topic. Let me say only that the sexual revolution of the ’60s took us from viewing female desire as “suspected,” dutiful, grudging, reproductive, and passive to “expected,” intentional, pleasurable, recreational, and active.

In sum, too many relationships survive with a surfeit of contempt: the partners linked because of money or the children and not by love, like adjacent members of a chain gang. Many others have companionship and limited or absent sex.

The crippling power of the romantic ideal also can lead to a point where someone else, real or imagined, appears in the mind, like smoke billowing from a magic lantern. “I could do better,” you say to yourself; I need someone “more understanding, more passionate, a better provider.” Abuse needn’t be part of the disappointment, nor infidelity. A bored, unappreciated partner is one who can be won by another; at least, the fantasy of another.

The challenge of changing our cultural model of marriage is, perhaps, impossible. Parents read us fairy tales, and we devour novels and movies perpetuating the dream. Our friends portray more bliss than they experience. Biology has programmed us to be momentarily blinded to the lover’s flaws once Cupid’s arrow strikes, to “feel” the honeymoon will last even if we “know” otherwise.

Comes the dawn, we discover we are out of joint with our spouse. Is it then so unreasonable to find partial fulfillment in lots of different places, perhaps compensating for much of the Disney World fantasy that doesn’t exist beyond its gates? Finding friends who “get it,” stimulating our brains by ourselves, having guiltless interests discovered after our marriage, traveling alone or with others to places we want to see, attending shows without the mate, and eating the Thai food our partner hates? In other words, assuming an active role and responsibility for transforming ourselves, rather than viewing the spouse like a bad employee in the relationship store’s complaint department?

This model doesn’t mean giving up on your spouse, but supplementing her instead. Renegotiate the marital contract as needed, go to therapy, look at what is yet possible. Realize that human nature requires fluidity and flexibility in a relationship as time passes, not the worship of a static statue of the two young lovers as they were. Reinvest your emotions, remember the good times, create more of them in the areas where you do match, and recall the struggles surmounted to build a rich if bumpy passage through life. Look at the part of the glass that remains half (or more) full: sweet, aromatic, enchanting. Maybe the magic is not so much gone as gone to sleep. If so, can Prince (Not Always) Charming’s kiss awaken it?

I am asking questions only you can answer.

Meanwhile, beware those folks who claim, “you deserve it,” even if they are referring to shampoo. Worse yet, the promise, “you can have it all.”

No.

I’m not suggesting you must lead a life of misery tied to a cruel, insensitive, dishonest brute of the male or female variety. Vanished love is cause enough to move-on. People needn’t be evil to become less than satisfying.

But, scan the environment and observe: nothing is ideal, dust piles up in rooms ignored, untended bridges collapse, and sometimes the search for the perfect is the enemy of the pretty good; in part because of what we don’t know about the cellophane wrapped, new or imaginary person and what we do know about the shopworn partner.

Perhaps relationships should not be measured only by what happens between the mates. If you have a satisfying job, raise good kids, live in a safe place, and enjoy close friends, might all these be indirect fruits of your relationship? Marital therapist Esther Perel believes perhaps you shouldn’t complain if you have a B- marriage, but get top marks in all the other areas; because the marriage provides a platform for the rest.

Please join me in a toast. Raise your glass to human value despite imperfection, to the worth of a shared road with a loving, sustaining partner who is not a Greek god or goddess (who were frankly more than a little troubled themselves).

Many things are possible in life, but fantasy only takes us so far.

My advice?

Take reality the rest of the way.

The top image is a cover scan of a romance comic book, as is the third and final image of Forbidden Love, both downloaded by Chordboard. The painting between them is The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

Interview with a Therapist

Who knows what a therapist might say under the influence of truth serum? Well, upcoming are unguarded words from this writer, a counselor retired, but not retiring from the challenge of interrogation. No drugs were necessary, but some background first.

I recently was named one of the 2017 Top Therapy Bloggers by Online Counseling Programs. How nice, I thought. Yet mingled with my gratitude came a second nagging question: why not the one and only Top Blogger of 2017? And then, why just 2017? Why not the top therapy writer of the decade? Or top blogger in the universe? Ah, well, I’ll have to make do. Life is tough.

Oh yes, the interview. The kind folks at Online Counseling Programs asked me nine questions. If you’d like an overview of my perspective on sexual attraction to patients, the training of psychologists, the challenge of maintaining boundaries, how the therapist (not the client) is changed by therapy, and the specifics of my career, you’ll find a good deal in my interview responses.

Another therapist would give different answers, although those currently in practice are careful not to share much about themselves. My retirement gives me the freedom to say a few things active counselors are wise not to touch. Please don’t assume they’d respond in the same way even if they were retired. What I offer is my perspective only, not unassailable truth.

Here are the questions:

  1. When and why did you originally create your psychotherapy blog?
  2. What do you hope to achieve by maintaining it?
  3. We highlighted your recent post, “The Arc of a Therapist’s Emotional Life,” because you offer such insightful musings on the therapist’s emotional life as it informs and is shaped by his professional work. One of the points you make is the difference in sympathizing versus empathizing with clients’ emotional states. How would you recommend that mental health professionals in training maintain emotional boundaries with their clients?
  4. Can you walk us through what motivated you to become a psychotherapist, as well as the educational journey you took to get there?
  5. How have you seen your blog and profession evolve over the years?
  6. During your nearly three decades as a practicing psychotherapist, what would you say were your most challenging and rewarding experiences, and why?
  7. What advice would you offer to aspiring psychotherapists?
  8. Music plays a major role in your blog. What has been the value and influence of music in your practice of psychotherapy?
  9. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

My answers? Click here.

The top image is a still photo of Harold Lloyd from his 1920 silent movie, High and Dizzy.

What Comes after Grieving? The Challenge of Saying “Yes” to Life

A formal, sarcastic, middle-aged woman, she was not an especially promising therapy candidate. Though very bright, one of her problems was her penchant for closing doors. She needed escape from the confined space of her life, but when possibilities arose, “no” was her usual answer. Even if no joy resided within her narrow neighborhood of known places, the dismissed opportunities existed outside her psychological comfort zone. Instead, she went to work, dutifully visited her adult children, saw her siblings on holidays, and spent lots of time reading and doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku, at which she was adept. Her life was safe, her job secure, her unhappiness guaranteed.

The lady thought she had all the answers, but her sadness suggested otherwise. Widowed for some time, her muted grief could be traced to guilt over failing an abusive husband, not his absent kindness. Until the grieving was completed, however, no manner of persuasion convinced her she was now free. Her fortress against hurt from others – a shelter of  fixed routine, avoided chances, and minimized risk – was self-created.

A luxury room in hell is still in a place you won’t like.

Some therapy clients feel as though the past has stained them indelibly, made them unacceptable. Or that they are tainted, marked “beyond repair” soon after birth. They believe unacceptability pervades everything they are, everything they touch. My patient was such a one.

The therapist faces many challenges here. He must, of course, win the trust of someone untrusting, accept the sarcasm and negativity, understand the part “attitude” plays in defending the individual, and realize the presence of an injured soul under the porcupine spines. A grieving process will take the time it takes, until past losses recede and guilt is shed, the stain less visible. At some point the patient must begin to reenter the world or, perhaps, enter for the first time.

A scary thing.

Life is like a book we write in indelible ink. We can’t erase the past, even though some imagine the ink is still wet and marks everything they touch with words written far back: words like bad, selfish, mean, stupid, and unattractive. Those who think this way believe the pejoratives live inside of them. They attribute superhuman powers to new acquaintances. People will, they are sure, quickly read the words through the transparency of face and body.

The book, however, has many blank pages left. The virgin parchment remains to be filled in, as pristine for you as for another. What will you write? Yes, you possess a history, but how much of it must you endlessly reread and then repeat and recopy on the unfilled paper? How much of the book’s future story must tell the same tale only with different people?

The empty spaces ahead are untainted, pure. If you keep looking back, you will keep getting the wet ink on your fingers, your forearms, your future. The new leaves will be smudged. Thus, the lady with whom I began this story anticipated an unsatisfying, injurious path, closed the gate to it, and only accomplished a reliving of her past in places offering no novel possibilities.

She needed a change of clothes, a shower, even a fresh start at work or new friends; maybe without her siblings or with a changed attitude toward them.

If you are like this patient, too quick to say “that won’t work or “I can’t do that,” well, as the wry aphorism tells us, “If you do what you’ve done, you’ll get what you’ve gotten.”

The art of therapy is, in part, the art of managing the client’s transition from shedding the past to his trying out a new version of himself: a kind of gradual debut of a person partially transformed. Some of the transformation happens in the working through of past injuries, but much develops, too, in taking on the world again. There is danger if you ignore your history, but an equal amount if you don’t venture out.

Each of us carries some version of the book of our life’s saga. For those least fortunate, the incomplete autobiography is heavy, filled with the weight of tragedy. Others own a lighter volume, but not free of disappointments, mistakes, and the harm nature or fate or other people have inflicted.

The past is a place for reluctant therapeutic visits or fond memories. In the middle of life, however, many blank pages still need filling.

The patient I mentioned eventually ventured out of those phases – those pages – already read and reread, lived and relived. She entered the world of the living again, where history is made. She noticed anew a man she’d known for a few years, someone who admired her from a distance. My client took the risk of taking him seriously, instead of treating him with her standard defense: a witty, but sarcastic distancing.

If any of us are to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we must first leave the house in search of it. We remake ourselves, in part, by taking tentative steps, not by waiting until we are fully changed. Change is in the action. Change is never finished, always moving, forever incomplete.

Perhaps it is too much to say my client found her innocence again, but in a way she did, and the joy of a second first love. She and her admirer married.

Life does not always permit a happy ending, nor do we get to write our whole story free of fate jostling our hand as we move the stylus.

Still, the blank pages beckon.

The top photo is called, Afraid of Water, by Jaka Ostrovršnik

The Arc of a Therapist’s Emotional Life

I am not the man I was when I became a man. Nor am I the therapist I was on the first day I treated a patient. My question, then, is how did I get from letter A to whatever letter of the alphabet I’m now standing on?

More importantly:

  1. Is there a pattern to the emotional life of a therapist?
  2. Must he change himself in order to do the work?
  3. Is he changed by the work?
  4. Does he change again after the work?

In the absence of clarifying research on these questions, I’ll offer my own anecdotal observations, both of other therapists and my own journey through therapy’s emotional thicket.

I’ll begin by suggesting that counselors choose the field for one of two reasons:

  • They are touched by the torturous path of humanity and wish to ameliorate suffering.
  • They are fascinated by the human condition, the myriad forms of personality, and want to learn more.

Many of us chose our occupation for both of these reasons and, of course, to make a living.

Let us assume, then, that the future mental health professional comes to his work sensitive to the pain of others. Perhaps he is attuned to some portion of this by his own nature or experience. I was.

Although I do not pretend to be like all therapists, I was a bright youngster with questions about life. One of my earliest questions was, “Why am I me?” I wondered why my particular consciousness was not in someone else’s body! I also displayed awareness of racism before wide-spread marches, sit-ins, protests; before the 1955 national emergence of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

My parents survived the Great Depression, my mom the victim of malnutrition and tuberculosis. She was further marked by a chaotic childhood home, a stewpot for mental disorders, including an alcoholic father and a paranoid mother. Dad survived a heart attack in late 1958. He, too, lived with the indelible tattoo of the 1930s worldwide economic drama and worked multiple jobs simultaneously into his seventh decade, both to define himself and arrest those youthful financial insecurities.

Beyond the particularities of the family, I came to an early awareness of the murder of the European Jews, though I experienced only occasional and mild anti-Semitism. I believe this consciousness preceded and heightened my recognition of racism and other forms of unfairness and mistreatment. Here was a youthful lesson that bad things can happen to good people. Thus, the stories I heard as a therapist, however harrowing, did not surprise me.

This was my emotional inheritance, the legacy shared with my brothers Eddie and Jack.

More generally, all children (including tiny therapists-to-be) need to master their emotions. We cannot cry at every setback. We discover this necessity in school, if not earlier. Those men born at the leading-edge of the post World War II “baby boom,” as I was, were raised to suppress their feelings, lest they be thought unmanly. The prohibition against male hyper-sensitivity or “softness” still is alive today, if somewhat muted.

What constitutes a “sensitive” person, however, is complicated. One can be easily hurt, moved by the pain of others, or both. If he is the former, the potential counselor must immunize himself against his own vulnerability before he can help anyone else. To do otherwise sets him up to become as needy as his client within session.

Even if the therapist is not “too sensitive,” he typically begins his therapy career with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to “cure” his patients – extend himself to the point of riding their emotional roller coaster with them – and risk burning out. Moreover, the new counselor, by definition lacking a track record of success, uses the improvement of his patients as the scorecard of his self-worth. To desire your client’s well-being is much more fraught if your equanimity and self-concept are too closely tied to the trajectory of the patient’s treatment.

Good therapists finally do acquire a sense of competence and confidence. They achieve this, in part, by finding the proper “therapeutic distance” from the person sitting across from them. You become sympathetic, not empathetic. In other words, you offer sympathy (compassion) rather than empathy (feeling as if the other’s pain has jumped inside you and taken you over).

The counselor is privileged and enriched by witnessing the fragility and strength of his clients. He listens to their stories: all the pain and challenge of life’s stage played out in a small room. I am certain I became more humane, a better person, because of the good luck of serving others. They served me, too – made me more comfortable with my own emotional expression, to the point of throwing-off some of the strictures required to “be a man.”

Nonetheless, I now wonder whether the distancing I mentioned might come at a cost. Does the therapist’s role above the roiling turmoil of his client persist when he is with friends or relatives? Can he set aside the now automatic tendency to “ice” his feelings at work and thaw himself elsewhere? Is the therapist’s responsiveness to those in his personal life limited by the practiced program of his profession? I’m not sure.

Now retired, I find myself (and a few other ex-therapists) experiencing a wider emotional range than before. At one end, I accept personal losses more easily (the recent death of a wonderful friend, Joe Pribyl, for example). The other extreme finds me more distressed by the fraught state of the world. Is this because I am no longer in the business of creating therapeutic distance? Might it be due to emotional changes that come with aging? Is the ratcheting-up of worldwide intolerance the cause? Maybe those reasons and more.

What then is the arc of a therapist’s emotional life? Here is one possible four-staged outline:

  • The child’s natural high sensitivity (amplified by the particular circumstances of his nature and experience).
  • A gradual mastery, to a degree, of his emotions, at least in public.
  • The essential development of therapeutic distance from the client, without losing sympathy.
  • A possible thaw, after retirement, in this automatic distancing. That is, an increased tendency toward empathy rather than sympathy in leading a life beyond the shuttered office. Paradoxically, an enlarged ability to accept most losses: to roll with the punches of life.

In the end, regardless of our personal trajectory, we hope our clients will be happy – “reasonably happy,” as the pianist, Rudolph Serkin wished for his student, Richard Goode.

The counselor’s universe of experience – vicarious exposure to the lives of his patients, as well as his own private emotional journey – is a sometimes dissonant, raw, thick, lumpy, unprocessed necessity for his work. He manipulates it and sings the words his effort evokes, searching for melody in the discord. He churns it – and it churns him. Only by refining this material can the healer transmute pain into the remediation of pain.

Perhaps, like the dream of suffering that Schubert wrote about in 1822, “to sing of sorrow, it turn(s) into love.”

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The top two images come from the collection of Christopher B. Steiner and date from 1915/20 and the 1920s, respectively. The final photo is called Self-portrait, by W. Helwig and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.