A therapist claims a special talent in performance of a common, but elusive function: penetration of another’s makeup. For counselor and client both, however, the obstacle to understanding each other is the same: they look at each other through the lens of their own psychology.
Think of the psychologist as a perfected version of yourself at the job life requires of everyone, every day: making sense of the social world. A friend or neighbor, if comparable to you in nature, presents no challenge. The likeness to you makes the task of “getting inside his head” effortless. “He is not so different from me,” so you say.
Should the essence of the acquaintance not match your own, on the other hand, you don’t “get him.” His extraversion collides with your introversion, talkativeness with your thoughtfulness, risk-taking with your risk-aversion. The behavior strikes you as unpredictable, inconsistent with your standard for thought and action. The man might still be attractive to you, perhaps because of his dissimilarity. No matter, misunderstandings and conflicts follow.
In the end, you shake your head, wonder what you are missing, and can’t explain “why he is like that.”
Individual life experience and the basic, inherited stuff in our brain limits us.
“Oh, you’ll have fun. Come on,” one says.
“What is he thinking? Who does he think I am?”
Both parties are at a loss.
A competent mental health professional received the trained-advantage of getting outside himself, to search into and through the eyes of the other; to imagine himself as the other. The doc discards inadequate evaluations as he would blurry glasses. Ego-driven attachment to initial assumptions and impressions cannot be permitted. The counselor must be willing to start over: to trash, revise, or rebuild the faulty conception he created for replacement by a new one.
Here is a crucial truth about true understanding: you will never grasp everything about the other.
Add one more, perhaps more important: your perspective of the other is your invention, neither the other as he is or as he thinks he is. The drawing you made of him is like an antique map of creation; inexact at best.
My therapeutic peers and I never lived in a patient’s shoes despite his resemblance to predecessors who sat in the same office. We could not claim precise insight even if we traveled through terrain similar to his life’s path.
“You don’t know me,” is always a true statement whether spoken by a friend or client, though we might discern qualities he does not admit to himself.
Each of us wears blinders. We screen off part of life. Emotional survival depends on it. Secrets from our friends and loved ones are dwarfed by our veiled sense of ourselves. Those who live astonishing lives of travel, accomplishment, and courage, still do not fathom the entire world, the world of every other person, nor the world of their truest self; not just revealed under the pressure of every imaginable test, but the self of everyday life.
Do not say, “If I’d been in that situation I would have behaved this way!” Imagined bravery and principle offer comforting self-delusions employed by those who pay nothing for a ticket to a game they never played.
The keeper of a quiet life, alone in a studio apartment next to a floor mate with the identical window view, does not share his neighbor’s every idea and emotion. His sensibilities, intellect, and history create divergence from his counterpart’s meeting with the passing time.
Even when nothing is happening, his internal confrontation with himself is not yours, not knowable to you.
The hurdle to comprehension is high, in part, because most of humanity is not psychologically-minded, a few therapists included. If we are to come close to a workable relationship with our buddy, spouse, parent, or child, — together with our patients — we must work and rework. The job is like that of an eye-glass grinder, refining the shape through which we take on the world of the other. And, if those we meet are rare types, we hope they perceive our dilemma and gamble more self-revelation than ever before; self-exposure coupled with the display of the tender, still hurting places beneath their raised guard and penetrable skin.
The potential reward is to be known as best we can, despite the isolating entrapment by our sausage casing enclosures and inevitable insecurities. Praying, too, the one who said “It will be fun,” recognizes our less than enthusiastic answer is not so peculiar. Out of such mutual effort we might, on occasion, walk through life hand-in-hand; imperfectly fit as we are, knowing with confidence the other is expending — not just money, attention, patience or passion — but the ceaseless labor to improve the lens with which to see us.
And to see himself.
Might this be one definition of a devoted and talented therapist? A friend? An ideal beloved?
Maybe all three.