The Risk of Emotional Openness: Of Therapists and Their Pedestals

Most of us in the West assume a stance of “openness” to a degree my parents and immigrant grandparents thought shameful and dangerous. Yet our casual ease in talking about “the personal” still has limits: lines not to be crossed.

On the dark side of that border, one finds all of us who are not “known.By this, I refer to the hidden aspects of who and what we are. In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky wrote about the parts of ourselves kept below the earth:

In every man’s memories there are such things as he will reveal not to everyone, but perhaps only to friends. There are also such as he will reveal not even to friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. Then, finally, there are such as a man is afraid to reveal even to himself, and every decent man will have accumulated quite a few things of this sort.

I had a taste of my mother’s notion of the proper place of privacy in repeated statements like, “What would the neighbors think?Her family’s advice for what was and wasn’t discussed came from a generation whose education was Eastern European and specifically Jewish.

Amos Oz, the late Israeli novelist, born in 1939, offered this commentary on those who fled Europe for Palestine before the genocidal erasure of their families and friends by the Nazis:

They had no difficulty at all in expressing communal feelings — they were emotional people and they knew how to talk. (But) the moment they tried to give voice to a private feeling, what came out was something tense, dry, even frightened, the result of generation upon generation of repression and negation ... They could never be certain that they would not utter something ridiculous, and ridicule was something they lived in fear of. They were scared to death of it.

Here, perhaps, is a partial answer to why so many of our friendships and romances fail. We want to experience the freedom and comfort of another’s knowing approval, but hesitate to leave more than a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the secrets Doestoevsky mentions.

No signpost to our camouflaged essence directs the curious to know what we want to be known, but dread will be known. The ridicule that terrified Oz’s parents is thus avoided.

Obstructions to external acceptance of our innermost selves are still more numerous. Unlike those mentioned, these come from the deficits in the ones whose respect we crave.

Few potential friends and lovers know how to enter our protected internal spaces or realize they misunderstand us without so doing. Much work is involved in achieving a depth of awareness of another person, time thinking about more than how to win someone’s friendship, or get naked with them.

Our observers see only the surfaces we present. I’m speaking of qualities like our appearance, intellect, or quick wit. We blind people with our externals, intended or not. What is obvious is like the topsoil of a garden, suggesting little of what lies underneath.

Beneath the stereotype applied to their veneers, the beautiful and smart, the handsome and wealthy, are always harder for an observer to see as they wish to be seen.

As amateur analysts of the human condition, we imagine most compatible acquaintances offer no challenges to comprehension. They are thought to be like us in nature, philosophy, and motivation, with perhaps a few variations due to age, gender, race, nationality, and religion.

Not always.

Whatever uniqueness exists in their clandestine attitudes and behaviors often defies stereotypes. The more unique they are, the less likely they will fit our usual classification system.

One group is skillful in lifting the veils of those who might dance away from in-depth exposure of who they are: therapists. With enough talent and experience, they uncover much of the shrouded but exceptional humanity missed by so many.

This quiet recognition astonishes the ones who are now, perhaps for the first time, recognized. The power of the event and the wizardry often attributed to the counselor confers a significant part of the appreciation and, sometimes, the love directed toward him.

The healer’s discovery confers on him a weighty obligation, as well. While he treats many patients and might feel great affection for them, he does not (if playing by the rules) share the same extent of meaningful attachment to them that he receives from them.

Whenever any of us recognizes the inner-truth of an unknown, defended soul, we are placed on a metaphorical pedestal. How do we manage the esteemed position conferred upon us because of our x-ray vision into his heart?

How much care and carefulness, how much gentleness, ought to be given to someone who believes we (and only we) hold the secrets of his universe? 

Regardless of whether one is a therapist or not, we now receive a responsibility we did not seek, ownership of a particular station in the life of the one stripped of his mask. Therapists, close friends, parents, or lovers — almost all of us sometimes take on the weight of this — or walk away in disregard.

No simple directions exist for managing the unsought for status. Comments on therapy blogs make clear that the best mental health experts can leave an indelible imprint. The memory of them may long occupy a living space in the minds and hearts of former clients, not quite a first kiss but still on a high shelf of importance.

In such cases, counselors are inclined to believe they have done their job. While they opened the patient to possibilities, that openness comes with the sometimes painful knowledge that much of their future will be lived without visits to the individual who did the unmasking.

Helping professionals think the toll is worth the reward, but only the client can say this with certainty.

I’m convinced not all do.

We live in a world of love and loneliness. Most of us have experienced both. The impact of being known is extraordinary enough to change the life of the one so revealed and accepted — accepted despite revelation of the dark treasure within their confidential, invisible fortress.

Not everyone you meet risks traveling to this place. Not everyone locates somebody who might hold the key to their closeted existence. No wonder Vincent van Gogh wrote the following in a letter to his brother Theo:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney and go their way ...

The stakes are considerable for the unseen. Their smoke signals disappear in a moment unless repeated. Even then, not all follow the vapor and welcome what they find there.

What else can the undiscovered one do? Will he speak the words and uncover his feelings before a stranger?

The risks echo. Is the hazardous path to “becoming known” a wise adventure or a dangerous one?

Perhaps both.

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All of the images above are the work of Mark Rothko. In order, Untitled, 1968; Untitled, (Light Over Grey), 1956; Untitled, (Light Cloud, Dark Cloud, 1957); No. 12, 1960; and No. 17 (Greens and Blue on Blue) 1957. I encourage you to take more than a few seconds to look at any one of these and discover what is beneath the surface impression, a visual analogue to the subject of this essay.

How We Grow Up — Confused

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We grow up by inches. The pencil marks on the wall measure our lengthening.

Or perhaps we grow up by pinches: the painful squeeze some adults perform on us, unasked. They reach for a cheek, grab skin between thumb and curled index finger, then tug. They smile and say something complimentary. Confusion follows. The friendly face and the pain are at odds. What we make of the event informs our understanding of love.

Did anything similar happen to you? A young person can miss how language sometimes disguises the infliction of injury. The smiling words say, in effect, nothing is wrong. Stress results. Some children reduce their anxiety by ignoring the contradiction between words and deeds. A blind spot is thus born.

Too bad. The immediate relief of your worrisome thought (“He doesn’t love me”) sets you up for greater harm. You become unable to distinguish those who hurt you from others who are genuinely loving. You’ve been conditioned to accept that an excruciating squeeze signals something good, at least occasionally — even though your nerve endings tell you otherwise.

Life requires us to make sense of nonsense. Our youthful minds are confounded. Who and what are we to believe?

I was probably under 10-years-old when my dad first took me to a White Sox game at old Comiskey Park in Chicago. He found a space for our Chevrolet on a street near the stadium.

A small boy about my age rode up on his bicycle.

“Watch your car for a quarter, mister?”

“No, thanks,” answered dad.

We walked toward the giant steel and brick amphitheater.

“Why would we need our car watched?” I asked my father.

“Protection. He was selling ‘protection’ — that something would ‘happen’ to the car if we didn’t pay him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He or one of his buddies might damage the Chevy.”

“Are you afraid they will?”

“No. Don’t worry.”

The car survived unscathed. Remember, though, we lived in Chicago. I learned my town was a place where mobsters once sold shopkeepers an adult-sized version of protection: pay us every month or we will wreck your business, destroy your merchandise, break your legs. What I’d seen was a mini-version of an Al Capone universe, all disguised as a proper business deal: standing guard over dad’s property, providing him a service. A contradiction again. Like the squeeze your relative expects you to believe is a sign of love, the protection offered was no protection.

You wet your bed. The parent screams at you.

“You’re too old for this. Look at the mess you made. Now your mom has to wash the sheet and covers again!

Mom comforts you.

“Dad didn’t mean it. He was frustrated. He did it for your own good. Your father really loves you.”

Really? Love = screaming? Since the math doesn’t work, you choose one or the other. Love feels better. When you are yelled at again will you believe you are loved? The worse for you if you do. Especially later.

By adulthood, friends are puzzled.

“How can you let him do that to you? You’re too good for him. You’re beautiful and smart. Why do you stay with him?”

We are misled by those whose unkindness is hidden by smoke and mirrors. They can be understood only by a fog-piercing X-ray vision we don’t possess. If blinders to inconsistency are put on early, they turn invisible, but still restrict our sight. Incomprehension becomes automatic, unconscious.

No wonder we go to therapists. No wonder they say, “Tell me about your childhood.”

The top image is Scolding by José Ferraz de Almeida, Jr. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.