The Ups and Downs of Thinking Like a Therapist

Therapists possess a “hidden” talent, but one with a downside. Their peculiar way of looking at the world creates an occupational hazard: the “gift” widens our difference from those whose approach to life is more matter of fact.

This strange flair enabled me to do my work well. My profession included providing written opinions to colleagues who wished to better understand their patient’s psychological status and diagnosis. Others requested my services as an expert witness in civil lawsuits, which developed into a small portion of my practice.

A district court also chose me to help evaluate the State of Illinois Department of Mental Health. Of course, the capability of which I’m speaking served my clients too. Otherwise, I could not have fathomed who they were, why they lived in the manner they did, and how to calm their distress.

The “secret” is in the act of questioning — how a counselor thinks and ponders his excellences, limitations, and mistakes, not just those of others. Now, though retired, I ask myself even more about the information I encounter daily, the people I speak with, and the books I read. Though I no longer search for habitual patterns in the affairs of my clients, the phrase continues to describe my approach to analyzing conduct.

The authors who capture me do more than tell a story. They attempt to leave clues to their timeless vision of mortal creatures individually and in groups.

Like them, this tendency to search for such markers was part of the reason I became a clinical psychologist. We are something like archaeologists of the soul.

Perhaps the first question I wondered about as a boy was, “Why am I me?” That is, why did my sense of self, my emotions, and my internal identity reside within a particular body and not that of, say, my next-door neighbor?

Other than genetic and evolutionary reasons, I never came up with an answer. Nonetheless, this was the first “thoughtful” question of my life.

I hoped to explain the peopled planet to myself. I remain curious. All of you who read me are of interest to me as well.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, from the Bible’s Old Testament, the following line speaks to what I’m addressing, including the act of thinking like a therapist.

“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

This takes the reader to some dark places. When you ask lots of questions, you see things about creation you might not be happy to face.

Even so, if you don’t figure out how to see in the darkness, you will block understanding yourself and quite a few of those you meet.

Psychological night vision enables other skills: finding opportunities in troublesome times, spotting pitfalls before you fall into them, admitting weaknesses you ought to master, and discovering a way to assist others and help make the world a better place.

Thus, it is necessary to interrogate yourself since you are the only chap you control.

We all are prone to tendencies quite different from the kind of scrutiny I’m describing. Most of us prefer simple answers and wear metaphorical sunglasses to shield ourselves from mankind’s darkness as much as we can. The way we try to determine if someone — let’s call him Person A — is good or bad provides an example.

Your solution to the dilemma of classifying Person A depends on how you define the sinful/saintly divide and, significantly, under what conditions you think the individual is good or bad. Say, in the cafeteria, in the bedroom, at work, or raising his children.

Since we lack access to much more than what A tells us, what others tell us about him, and receive no 24-hour video surveillance of the poor guy, we usually take the incomplete data we have and assume the bloke displays consistency in every circumstance.

Psychologists recognize this isn’t so.

Few folks want to see the shady side of those about whom they care. And we tend to dismiss kindnesses in those we dislike. Thus, we form simple, unitary opinions: A or B, good or bad. Questioning, for me, attempts to take a deeper look. We are more complicated than any superficial examination reveals.

It is easier to come to judgments about others than reflect upon why they are the way they are and in which situations they are different from their usual manner of self-presentation. As suggested, no one is constant — just one thing — always the same no matter the circumstances.

Still, we mostly get a glimpse of what is obvious.

The Stoic philosophers knew better than the simplifiers. They emphasized that no one achieves awareness of himself until he has been tested, if then. The trials they referred to include various temptations, dangers, moments demanding moral or physical courage, and how we respond to calamity. What you do then, not what you think you would do, defines your character.

In case you wonder, I got a passing grade on a number of these tests and failed others. So I’d like to believe. Ha! But — and I emphasize this — a better judge always must be a lady or gentleman at the head of the courtroom, not the one on trial. We forgive our lapses with disturbing frequency.

Much of the human world lives in a rationalized daydream of moral innocence. People believe they would survive unstained in situations they’ve never encountered and praise their purity without supporting evidence.

On the other hand, determining and criticizing someone else’s compromised or imperfect nature comes easily. Moreover, we do need societal judging, without which there would be full-time chaos.

However much judging is required in the world, one should take care since those who cover the mirrors in their own home almost make a profession of pointing fingers.

The kind of questioning I usually engage in nearly 75 years in the making. I imagine the process will continue to develop. It involves less categorical judgment than previous versions in my three-quarters of a century among all of you and those I knew who came before and left before me.

In describing a life of questions, I’m not recommending the practice as necessary or wise for all. The tendency to do so has chosen me in the God-given nature with which I was thrown into the world and the early life unique to me. I have merely decided to exercise and refine the process.

The skill is also the property of most therapists to an uncommon degree compared to those who make a living in other work. Nor would I recommend it to anyone much younger.

Young people are better off taking life as it comes, enjoying and learning from their initiation into adulthood. To make questions useful, the art of examination must be based on sufficient experience and knowledge of humanity.

We require the many encounters we endure along the way. Surprises and disappointments that only come with “living it” provide essential information and awareness.

Studying from the mountain top or staying on guard, away from the numerous challenges of proceeding through time, leaves one with enormous blind spots. The only way anyone should take on a mountain ought to be on an expedition, if then.

Youth also is a time of passion built into the hormonal flood. While the biological flow can be trouble, it is the source of much joy if you are lucky enough. We discover so much without knowing it as we proceed through the thicket of all the rapid changes in a youthful body.

The “first times” shower and dazzle we poor souls, or should. They come with new schools, new friends, new environments, new loves, and alterations to the world around us.

It is not a time for standing from an objective place outside of and distant from experience, a marginalizing choice. I realize this from having taken such stances early, though fortunately, I decided to enter the fray of existence because I realized I needed to reshape myself.

In his poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “You must change your life.” You, meaning each of us, in our never-ending response to the internal and external torrent in addition to the river of time’s usually gentler flow.

From the now distanced standpoint of recognizing there is more time behind than ahead, I also increasingly put my ego aside. When trying to investigate something, beginning with the unconscious intention of defending your ideas, you reduce the chance of rearranging beliefs and learning new lessons.

This position requires humility, a stance from which you realize, “I do not know everything, and I’ve not had every sort of life experience.”

I am enlarged by conversations in which I listen to the answers I am getting to my questions and what others ask or tell me. From this perspective, in the best cases, I learn more and am enriched by human contact and knowledge.

When the encounter works, as I hope it does some of the time (whether reading a great novel or speaking with someone who will engage me with fresh notions and reflections), I consider myself lucky and sometimes become a better person. That is, I intend to.

Another way I’ve grown is the result of looking at those occasions when I was unkind.

For a therapist, there is some overlap between performing your vocation and the position you take as a private conversation partner, at least for me. One needs to remember who this person is, their sensitivities, what might prompt their discomfort, etc.

The individual’s reactions also raise the prospect of questioning him (and yourself) about the state of play between the two of you and whether he desires something different from you. The word “play” needs to be taken in two ways. First, as the playing field of life and second, as a space offering the freedom to enjoy the other — with a watchful eye for the emergence of friction or animosity.

For those personal and therapeutic relationships not going well, it is appropriate to consider whether the conceptualization you’ve created of this individual is erroneous.

Did you miss something? What? And how does this insight revise or complete your picture of him? Importantly, does this knowledge lead to changes in your words and actions in the future? You are always doing this in performing your job, less often with friends and acquaintances.

Since retiring, the questions I repeatedly focus on include the larger human dilemma and the pattern of history leading everyone to this moment. I wish to find out what those I’m close to, and the great minds of history think about this remarkable thing on loan to us, which we call life. Also, how they, the living souls I love, understand themselves.

I reflect on my life, look back at a few regrets, and try to adjust to a world and a physical self in flux, moving in the challenging direction we all come to do with age.

An old friend once emphasized the importance of asking “the second question.” Here is another way of describing the process in which I engage. Most people don’t do this. The common spontaneous expression “That makes sense” too often stops the evaluation without considering alternatives. As the old saying tells us, “Common sense isn’t so common.” You might be surprised by what happens if you ask “the second question” or even a few more.

Some people are made uncomfortable by the questioning. Even those more open should not feel like you are putting them on a witness stand of confrontation, indifferent to the tender spots they try to hide. I’d venture very many members of the human race set aside the task of self-reflection, confident they already understand themselves.

An acquaintance of many years recently told me he was free of regret about his life and was at a loss to remember any significant injuries he did to others. I suppose I’d say he hasn’t reflected enough, but he is a happy man.

Perhaps wisdom lies in his approach if the goal of life is happiness instead of self-awareness and becoming the best self one can be. Certainly, we all want the joy.

As to where to discover the wisdom, that’s a question for you, too.

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Above are four examples of Mark Rothko’s work in an art form called Abstract Expressionism. All are untitled, except for names that refer to the colors employed. The top 1963 painting derives from the Smithsonian Institute. Next comes Purple, White, and Red  (1953), then works from 1967 and 1969. The last three can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago.