When Words Fail

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There are times, whether in therapy or in life, when words are inadequate. Listening to a story of heartbreak, sometimes my heart broke a little, too. If my patient watched me carefully (no failure on his part if he didn’t), he saw the tears in my eyes. Words would have intruded on what was happening between us. In a sense, the air, the touching contact of our eyes — the silence — did that which could be done.

This moment in US history cries — and cries out — for a response, but too many words have already been written and spoken. I am reminded of the composer John Cage, a wry and brilliant man. His most famous piece is entitled 4’33.” The composition consists entirely of silence. Quiet is appropriate for mourning, is it not?

Whether in words or in silence, compassion only goes so far. Expressed opinion only goes so far. But the emotional shards need removal, thus grieving comes first for most of us.

The work of therapy begins with the processing of pain. Sadness often robs us of motivation. Fear can paralyze. There are more catastrophes predicted than realized. Unrestrained anger turns you into the thing you hate. Rage is a motivator, but not easily prolonged or healthily maintained. No psychologist would urge you to try.

What then? Prior to counseling’s end you must change yourself if your goal is to change the world, whether one’s small personal globe or the bigger one.

Marcus Aurelius wrote,

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.

Like the wrestler we take a breath, search our ingenuity, and get up when we have been thrown to the mat.

A return to the fight is essential whether in therapy or life. Action — exerting control of what you can control — defeats the sense of helplessness.

In therapy and in life we are called to heroism. Courage is required to take on uncomfortable truths, beginning with those about ourselves. Difficult actions must follow. No heroism is needed to pour gasoline on your heart and light a match. Reason is your friend; emotion, not always.

Take responsibility and act responsibly.

Nor does one profit by the simple wish for a result, a passive hope for a change, or a patient wait for others to lift you. Freedom from your demons, in therapy and in life, must be won.

Our demons teach us who we are and what we are made of. Are they perhaps, in this way, our friends? Do we owe a peculiar debt to our challenges? You cannot think otherwise when you watch your 14-month-old child learn to master his universe, but you can when you have been decked. Regardless, whatever we want we must make it so.

Therapy is not an endeavor of a few weeks or months if the goal desired is substantial. Whether in therapy or in life you will succeed only if you persevere. Expect setbacks. Whether in therapy or in life, many make a fast start out of the gate, but fade before the stretch run. The finish line is not achieved and the problems then persist. Lasting dedication of your entire spirit triumphs over both temporary grievances and passing enthusiasms. No distractions are permitted for the true of heart.

Cato said:

When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched. … Good judgment without action is worthless.

Whether in therapy or in life the voice is yours, the choice is yours, and the action must be yours.

The painting above is The Silence by Johann Heinrich Füssli. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Can a Therapist Know How You Feel? Must He Have Courage? Thinking About Essential Qualities in a Counselor

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Does a therapist “know how you feel?” No. How could he?

But he may still be able to help you even without such knowledge.

Why don’t I know how you feel? I am not you. I am not your age or perhaps your gender. We may not share the same faith. I wasn’t born in the same place under the same circumstances. My parents made more money or less than yours, lived with extravagance or pinched pennies. They survived the Great Depression well or badly or not at all; and so forth.

A counselor is not in your skin, so can’t know the sensations which comprise your life. Yet he can have some idea, perhaps even a good one. What might that idea be based on?

First of all, you are both human and have a certain set of shared, although not identical experiences. Speaking for myself, as a seasoned counselor I talked to thousands of people who told me what they thought, revealed how they reasoned, and explained how events influenced their mood. I therefore became familiar with the range of what is possible in reaction to an enormous number of circumstances. I also read text books, received instruction from teachers, and shared in the richness of emotion, perception, joy, and adversity found in stirring memoirs, novels, plays, and movies.

Despite all of this, I am open to surprise. An example: my father died abruptly in the year 2000 at the age of 88. I’d known he was mortal at least since the time of his heart attack when I was a boy. Prior to his death I counseled many people who were suffering from loss. Still, despite dad’s advanced age, his demise was shocking. Like the flick of a switch — the “here today, gone tomorrow” unreality was too true. Unexpected fatigue lasted for months, as though the life force taken from him had been emptied from me as well. Even now, years after this loss, I can’t say for sure “I know how you feel” if you tell me about the death of your father. Your relationship with him and the circumstances of each of your lives might cause me to rely more on imagination than something closer to your lived experience.

I would argue we cannot even recall how our own pain felt once the distress recedes into the moderate or distant past. Big events do not remain unaltered in the museum of the brain. Rather, they are like a photo faded by the sun. We need painful memories to diminish, which would otherwise leave us in a perpetual state of agony. Even splendid, heavenly recollections, if remembered with their original impact, would compromise our ability to attend to the most crucial elements of each new day. To some degree we must unconsciously forget or transform our life history.

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You might ask me: “How then can you help me grieve my loss if you can neither ‘know how I feel’ nor retain an unaltered remembrance of your own loss?” In several ways. I can listen to you and bear witness to your pain. I can be sympathetic. I can accept the emotions and stories you share: the varied combination of sadness, anger, exhaustion, and sense of separation from the world accompanying the death of a loved one. I can abide with you, acknowledge your suffering, and “be there” until it passes. If you will accept the comfort, our relationship will help to reattach you to life, even while you are grieving something that rends the same cord of attachment.

You will never be what you were before your loss, of course. But, you are more likely to heal if you share your grief. Holding it in or trying to “move on” too quickly — or shedding your tears only in private — can cause your sadness to pass by inches or not at all. Human contact in the aftermath of loss is crucial. A supportive spouse, friend or therapist can help. Time does the rest.

My sympathy for you doesn’t require I first possess knowledge of your internal life any more than enjoying milk requires a prior existence as a cow. Best not to say you know how another experiences his suffering. It is enough to tell him you care. Indeed, were you to fathom every detail of the emotions passing through another without caring, absolute understanding of his pain would count for nothing. Genuine concern — not some magical power to read another’s heart — is what counts. A patient will often forgive a therapist’s momentary failure to grasp his upset, but ought not to accept his indifference even if his knowledge of the patient’s emotional state is exact in every aspect.

The counselor carries an imperfect bag of tricks. Like the wounded soul who comes to treatment, he risks failing at the task he shares with his client, even if the courage demanded of the patient is greater. The therapist also assumes the frightful responsibility of caring for another with no certainty his effort will avoid tragedy, even if his burden and terror are less than the patient’s own.

The practitioner is always practicing. He must work to learn more and attempt to heal you no matter how much knowledge and experience he has. His therapeutic arsenal is never complete. Psychotherapy research is forever making new discoveries. Fortunately, if the therapist has the knowledge, dedication, and experience along with the courage to allow your heart to touch his, what he has tends to be enough.

In accepting you as a client, he risks injury to both you and himself. Why? In short, because you do matter to him. In treatment with the best healers, that is the one thing of which you can be certain, however much your relationship history causes doubt.

The top photo is Misty Morning by flagstaffotos.com.au/ The second image is Cirrus Clouds with 3-D Look by Simon A. Eugster. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Life is Overwhelming and Therapists Don’t Get It

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If you didn’t believe life was difficult — well, you probably would have given up on this blog long ago. Some of us imitate Sisyphus, the mythical king sentenced to push a bolder up a hill for eternity. Each time he reached high enough, the rock rolled down and he started over.

A few therapists sell you a potential future far beyond anything realistic. They are usually young, naïve despite their years, or genetically disposed to walk on the sunny side of the street. A handful are just lucky. The imagined life on offer is like being next door to a barbecue: you watch the smoke and smell the meat cooking. Your portion, however, will be a plate containing the sizzle without the steak.

Bon appétit.

Other counselors attempt to persuade themselves of reasons to be optimistic. Their effort to salve your wounds also treats their own. Whether self-aware or not, they make noise in the office to mask the bone crunching going on just outside, the better not to hear the screams.

This month I came upon two bloggers who endure the piercing splinters from those broken bones. I did not say “have endured.” Their pain is still alive.

They don’t so much triumph over the travail as persist despite it. Each offers realism over fairy tales, honesty over imagination, and survival over happy endings. This is the brutal truth from their perspective.

Read their posts and weep, but remember, they are still around to speak to you, write for you, and live for themselves and those about whom they care. Each one offers a meaningful life, not a walk in the park. One is a Jack of many trades, the other a Jill of a teacher.

Both are enraged at those who maintain that “everything happens for a reason.” Each finds reasons — not a reason — to persevere despite the things they carry. They do not offer you all the details of what caused the suffering, preferring you to focus on the emotional consequences.

Consolation in life requires acknowledgement of the extent of the injury, not platitudinous minimization. Invalidation of your misfortune by a friend or counselor is the therapeutic equivalent of passing gas. Such people would tell you the end of Hamlet, with bodies littered everywhere, is just a part of the “divine plan.”

We benefit by the presence of a faithful soul who often can do no more than stand by. A good therapist offers this service, not the disrespect of telling you that Prince (or PrincessCharming is in the parking lot waiting for you.

The male blogger is an “adversity and life strategist:” Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason/

The lady is an English teacher: The Lottery/

Witness the pain of these writers. In so doing you will be honoring your own.

The photo is called Melancholy by Andrew Mason (London, UK). It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Frozen Personalities: Why Talk Therapy Needs More Than Talk

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The time-honored treatment for psychological trauma is to uncover the wound, then gently expose it to the light. The “infection” must be drained, ever so slowly. Healing should follow.

Perhaps. Yet this method is rather like digging a hole, uncovering a buried skeleton, and raising it to earth. No revival is guaranteed. The bones still need to be fleshed out. The heart must beat. The creature needs to walk — away. Otherwise, the perimeter of the territory around the hole circumscribes the rest of his life. As the blunt, sometimes too impatient saying goes, you must “move on” — away from the place you’ve been stuck.

Movement is the key.

The patient will survive, but must live for the first time. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk describes the brain dysfunction produced by trauma: the victim is both more prone to agitation and less able to distinguish what is happening in the moment. Despite the chronological distance from injury, one’s life remains organized as if the danger were still present. Imagine an army after the war is over, forever in “stress mobilization” mode, ready for the next onslaught. The brain and body sense the world through the old, cracked lens of an ancient injury. Thus, rewiring the brain is now thought to be an essential treatment element for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The patient must become alive to the present. A number of methods might accomplish this, though research on how best to produce brain changes is in its infancy. Among the approaches suggested are neurofeedback, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and group theatrical or musical performance. These techniques engage the body, where so much of the damage is “felt,” almost as if it were written on the skin. Little is proven, but the field of recovery from trauma is buzzing with discussion.

In my own practice I treated those who took flight once the hurt wing was mended — and those for whom there was no bottom to the hole they had fallen into — pushed by an unkind hand.

For the latter group, the therapist’s office sometimes serves as both a refuge and a prison. One sees the dual function of the doctor’s consulting room for patients still afraid, wary, and worried. They continue to scan the environment for signs of the next disaster. Their lives are fraught with endless repetitions and imaginings of future grotesque events. The counselor can be like a magnet for them, offering a sometimes too tight embrace. The therapist becomes a metaphorical talisman in such cases, a rabbit’s foot one cannot do without. In effect, the therapy appointment itself is the only safe time in the only safe place; the shrink, the only safe person.

This is not enough. Both the doctor and the patient must recognize the goal is not only to grieve the trauma, but to reclaim a life; or to learn how to live for the first time. The participants in the therapy hour should leave rabbits’ feet to rabbits. They must recognize that, however lifelike, the client has not been living. He has been trapped in self-defeating routines. His life consists of traveling at considerable speed in a circle, always returning to the same place. Adventure, imagination, and joyful relationships are absent. The patient lives in his traumatized past or a fearful future, but not in the moment. Lacking the resilience to take on an imperfect world, he ventures nowhere.

Yes, you must talk about what happened. Yes, you must understand what happened. Yes, you must grieve what happened. But life, not an imitation, requires movement, change, and repeated abandonment of old ways for new ones. The therapist and her office, taken together, are like a stepping stone on your trip into the rough stream of remembrance: a place to land, but not a stopping place.

Nor is the shore the goal. The truth is, one never lands in a completely safe spot. Good therapy simply helps one become a better navigator in today’s waters, not yesterday’s or tomorrow’s.

You are safer not because of the place or the doctor, but because of yourself: newly designed, rewired, and outfitted, ready for the wind to catch your sails — ready for adventure even without the wind.

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The top image is called, Mr. Seafall’s Talk Button, by Mr. Seafall. The second photo is a Naval Ship of Brazil by the Brazilian Navy. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the Loss of Someone You Love

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When you have sustained a personal loss others provide consolation as best they can. If it is a death, there is a funeral to attend and a home to visit. If it is the breakup of a relationship or a marriage, there are phone calls, email, and visits, too. Plus, in almost all cases, an off-stage sigh of relief from the friend or relative who was not so close to the departed; relief that it didn’t happen closer to their heart and their home. But what is life thereafter for those who are most bereft?

You know some of it because you’ve lived it or read about it or seen it on stage: the tears and/or anger, the grieving process, etc. I’m not going into that which is well-known to most people, but rather some of the things you might not think about that happen when someone terribly close is gone; and how the life of one remaining behind can be changed. The items on the list may or may not happen to you, but they do happen, at least occasionally, for more than a few.

First, however, I want to emphasize that while we are not all the same in dealing with loss, the time it takes is usually measured in months, not years. That said, anniversaries of the death, holidays, and other significant events at which the departed is absent can be very tough, especially the first few times through. And the long shadow of an important life can reappear even years later, although without the emotional wallop, as a rule. Just to emphasize, this is something almost all of us get through, painful though it is. And, as you will see at the end of this essay, it can also be a thing from which you learn and grow.

Now to the less often discussed experiences that you might have while going through the grieving process:

  • Fatigue. Loss can be like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks the life out of you. You may feel tired, need more sleep, or simply have a general lack of enthusiasm and joy. The sadness is well-known, the spirit-draining weariness is less frequently discussed, but can go on for months.
  • Dullness of Thought. Whether you have a razor-edged brain or the more ordinary kind, you just might find that your usual sharpness is compromised. Perhaps you will be more forgetful, perhaps slower to process ideas, or just less in command of the executive functions that your mind typically does automatically.
  • Seeing the Loved One Who is not There. The days will pass and you will usually do the usual things. Let’s say you are filling up your car with gasoline at one of those petrol stations that also include a convenience store, filled with some snacks and sundries. As you are staring off into space while holding the gas pump, you see your deceased father walking into the store to pay for his gas. You literally can’t believe your eyes, and yet it seems to be your dad. You wait for him to exit and, indeed, it is a stranger. For other survivors, a similar circumstance occurs when they hear the voice that is not there. These are usually not hallucinations, but simply a part of the survival and grieving process.
  • Reaching for the Phone to Call the One Who is not There. Something happens in your life that would normally cause you to call, or email, or text the person who is out of your life. Maybe it is news of sports or a personal achievement, a surprising event, or perhaps you want some advice. A second later you realize that the contact will be unavailing. It is either impossible, if the person is deceased, or unwanted, if your former love no longer wants you.
  • Thinking about What the Deceased has Missed. My Uncle Sam, who died at age 50 in 1970, loved technology. He was creative and made things with the digital dexterity of an old-time watchmaker, although that was not his craft. He was the first person I knew to have a tape recorder (big reels in those days before cassettes and digital recording), a window air conditioner, and a Kodak camera that gave you a photo seconds after you took it, an advance we now take for granted. He was also a rabid fan of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Over the years, as technology has progressed, I have occasionally thought that he would have loved to live today to see and use it all; maybe even to play a part in changing it for the better. And, in 2005, when the White Sox won the World Series, he would have been in heaven. Then again, maybe he was.
  • The Inability of Others Who are also Bereft to Help You Grieve. The most poignant and difficult examples of this feature of loss come in families where a parent has perished or fled to parts unknown. If the family still includes a loving parent, the children are used to going to that mom or dad with their problems, assuming the kids are still relatively young. But now they find that the person who provided consolation is himself or herself laid low by the very same loss from which the children seek relief. Part of the reason that therapists are useful is that they have not been struck by the identical calamity and therefore have the emotional energy and perspective that the remaining parent temporarily lacks. In a way, the children of parents who are also grieving the same loss have sustained a double blow: the literal absence of one caregiver and the altered capacity and emotional support of the other.
  • Changes in Continuing Relationships. The demise or permanent absence of someone important can change relationships among the survivors. When a parent dies who served to block family differences and ensure that “everyone would get along,” those submerged conflicts can burst out. It is a bit reminiscent of the multiethnic countries of Eastern Europe or the Middle East who were ruled by a dictator, until the dictator was overthrown and sectarian strife broke out. In some other families — those where favorites were played by the parents — I have occasionally seen the passing of the parents permit the siblings to get over their grudges and become closer now that no one is present to “stir the pot” to a boil, setting one child against another. Then there is the departure of a central figure in a group of friends to another city. His or her loss can, in effect, be the loss of the glue that held the group together; or, it can be the opportunity to reform the group and perhaps add someone new.
  • The Death of a Child. This is the terror that haunts every parent who ever loved his or her little flesh and blood. Again, each situation is different, but I will comment on two possible outcomes only. Some folks effectively deaden themselves to their surviving children or to any new child who is born. Consciously or unconsciously, they are steeling themselves against the possibility of still another emotional wound. Blame, too, can raise its ugly face. If one or the other member of the couple believes that his or her partner “caused” the death by action, word, or inaction, the marriage itself is at risk. The suicide of a young person too easily sets off this chain of events. Yet it must be said that many of us have also tried to deaden ourselves after the loss of a romantic love. Time usually softens our hearts and fuels the courage to try again, but not always.
  • Meeting Someone Like Your Lost Love. My wife and I have made wonderful friends in the University of Chicago’s four-year “Basic Program” for adults.  One is a man named John Kain. For Aleta, John is more than a friend: he reminds her of her father, who died in 1968 before I had a chance to meet him. She describes John and her dad as “the kind of men whom everyone wishes to have as a friend, the salt of the earth.” Thomas Henek’s funeral drew hundreds and I am convinced he must have been the genuine article: someone you could trust, a person who believed in fair play, and an unprejudiced man raised in a prejudiced home; a man who lived a principled life with strong, but not inflexible opinions, a sense of humor, and, above all, the kind of guy you wanted to have next to you in war-time (he was in the infantry in WWII) — a buddy who had your back. Aleta says that talking to John saddens her not in the least, but makes her feel good because of his likeness to her father. Perhaps you will be so lucky after someone essential passes away, that years later you can, in effect, benefit from his likeness in a new relationship such as hers with John.
  • The Loss of Your History. We’ve all read history books with dates, statistics, events, and conjecture about what caused those occurrences. Usually historians wait a bit before writing books, in part because one needs some perspective to understand how the puzzle pieces interlocked and how the dominoes fell against each other before they stopped. Such books have the advantage of distance, but unless they are written by someone, now usually aged, who lived that history, one tends to miss the authentic voice of the person who was there. Moreover, written history does not take the form of a novel, and is necessarily more concerned with the big picture than those particular lives in which you or I might be most interested. Oral and video history projects, as well as photographs and home videos keep some of that alive. Yet, inevitably, there are things one wishes to know too late, even if you have interviewed an older parent or relative and kept the recording in a safe place. There are always new questions about times that were very different from the time we live in today. Parents and grandparents also are typically our only link to the days before video cameras were in everyone’s pocket.
  • The Undead Feelings about the Dead. In the superb 1970 movie I Never Sang For My Father, starring Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas, the first voice we hear is that of Hackman as the son of Douglas: “Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship.” Such a death, where issues between child and parent were never resolved, finds the survivor struggling to heal himself alone or with the help of others, but with no ability to talk things through with his deceased progenitor. As a therapist, it was often my experience that my patients didn’t even know the extent to which they were still haunted by the neglect, criticism, or frank abuse of a late mom or dad. Indeed, on occasion, someone who was victimized only felt “safe” after the perpetrator’s death. Only then could her conscious and subconscious defenses drop enough to permit exploration and full awareness of the mistreatment she suffered. To some degree, there was still a small child within her (metaphorically speaking) who was terrified of what would happen if she talked about the thing she knew was never to be mentioned.
  • The Things You Said or Didn’t Say. Conscience can be a troublesome trait. Your words or actions — the things you believe you ought or ought not to have done while your parent was alive or your lover was still with you — are now put in “your permanent record,” as teachers of my grade school era would threaten from time to time about in-school misbehavior. This can happen even if your parents or your lover weren’t the best, but made you feel that it was you who were at fault. You will see this played out realistically in the movie I just mentioned, I Never Sang For My Father. If you cannot find the movie, read the Robert Anderson play of the same name, upon which it was based.
  • Unsolved Mysteries. Regardless of how much time you spend in therapy or hours on your own considering and reconsidering the actions and words of someone you loved — romantically or otherwise — more than likely there will be elements of understanding that elude you. Realize that you need to observe limits on how much time you spend reflecting on your past. You must live the only life you have in the present, regardless of what has been lost. As the great black Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
  • Empathy. Though no one would choose to grow by experiencing loss, we tend to learn more from sadness than happiness, especially about the human condition. There is a depth that can come from loss and knowing that you can come out the other side. No life is clear sailing all the way. Losing a close friend, lover, brother, sister, or parent not only can enhance our ability to be kind to others, but also to be kind to ourselves. More than that, it silently speaks to the folly of believing that the accumulation of wonderful material things is more important than spending time with those you care about, while reminding us that those objects can be replaced, but a life cannot be.
  • Appreciation. A recent episode of the great TV comedy series, The Big Bang Theory, presented Bob Newhart as the ghost of the just-deceased “Professor Proton;” a man whose science show for children had inspired two of the program’s main characters, Sheldon and Leonard, to become physicists. Both of them had come to meet and know their childhood hero in his old age, and were troubled by his loss. Sheldon, when he is “visited” by the ghost, believes the Professor to have returned in the manner of Obie-Wan Knobe, the Jedi Master of the Star Wars films, who “lives” posthumously as a mentor and guide to Luke Skywalker. Sheldon is a brilliant but very self-involved and condescending young man, something the Professor is wise enough to identify. Proton responds to Sheldon’s grief with the suggestion that he begin to show appreciation to those still alive and around him while he can.

If there is any positive message in an ended love, I think the Professor had it right. The human heart does tend to heal, as the history of our shared humanity reveals. The danger is in ignoring the terrible fact that no one will be here forever. Loss reminds us to get on with life, to do what is most important, and to show and tell those we love just what they mean to us. Time sometimes is generous with us and gives us lots of opportunities. But Father Time does not put out printed departure schedules for the passengers on his train. We do not know when the wild and wonderful, up and down ride of life will end.

Don’t wait for the right time. The right time to show appreciation is right now.

The above photo is a U.S. Department of Defense photo essay taken by John Crosby. It is not about a permanent loss, but the emotion seemed to me to fit this topic. According to Wikimedia Commons, “U.S. Army Spc. Nathan Martin hugs his father a final goodbye before the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team’s Afghanistan departure ceremony on Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, Indiana, Sept. 25, 2010. Martin, assigned to the Security Force Platoon, is saying goodbye to his loved ones one last time before deploying.”

 

Lessons in Saying Goodbye: The Farewells of Carlo Maria Giulini

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Meaningful farewells are rarely easy. Some people hide their emotions, others are overwrought. Here are two examples from someone you will relate to: Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005), the famous Italian musician whose 100th birthday anniversary we are celebrating this year. His model of how to handle parting might nudge you to rethink your own.

The first farewell was both heart-rending and public, beginning with a rehearsal and then in performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in March, 1971 when Giulini was its Principal Guest conductor.

Fred Spector, a now retired CSO violinist, told the story in 2001:

We were doing the Verdi Requiem and we knew that his mother had just died (unexpectedly, while he was in Chicago). He walked out on stage (to rehearse with us), starts to conduct the Requiem and stops. He was crying and he said “They want me to come home. What good is that? My mother is dead. It is more important that I have this experience with you and the Verdi Requiem and think about my mother.” And now he’s got us all crying, the whole orchestra in tears. “That’s more important because then I can experience and think about my mother in this marvelous Requiem.”

That is kind of what this man was about and those were the greatest performances I’ve ever played of the Verdi Requiem, bar none…. We wanted to get that feeling that he wanted for his mother.

Giulini said goodbye in a different way when he accepted the Music Directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to begin in 1978. It would mark the end of his 23 year association with the Chicago Symphony, the orchestra with which he made his American debut in 1955. The announcement came about one year before his final CSO concerts.

The conductor handwrote a letter to the Orchestra itself shortly after the news became public, and he eventually would make the rounds of the various staffers at Orchestra Hall to say a personal farewell when he returned during the 1977/78 season, before taking on his Los Angeles duties. Here is a portion of his April 16, 1977 letter:

My Dear Friends,

Circumstances made it that during the week of your deserved rest I was regrettably unable to personally meet with you. In a sense, this may have been a blessing in disguise, since such a meeting would have produced in me so many emotions that I would have been overwhelmed. That is why I am writing this letter to each and every one of you.

How long has it been since we have been together and made music together? At times it seems it was so long ago and at others, as if it were yesterday. In all of these years, so much music and work was translated in a rare and precious manifestation of friendship and collaboration between us that transcends the level of dutiful professionalism and indeed represents the true spirit of our calling as musicians. In the course of our long association, a rare and precious relationship developed among us — much as the one that existed among my quartet companions of my younger days (when I was a violist). A relationship that springs from excellence, love and dedication to the noblest purpose of music — of which we are the custodians.

For the music and work we did together, for your trust and loyal support, for all the feelings of joy and fulfillment we shared, and for what we have been able to transmit to music lovers, I thank you most profoundly.

There is not much more for me to add — because I am sure that you will understand both what I feel and what I mean.

You will continue to occupy a special place in my heart as you always have,…

As for the future… it is in the Hands of God.

Until we meet again, I fraternally embrace each and every one of you and wish you all the very best and —

Godspeed.

Carlo Maria

Thomas Saler* wrote of the rehearsals that preceded the conductor’s last CSO performance on March 18, 1978:

“Chicago was the most beautiful moment in my musical life,” (Giulini) said. “It is in my blood, not just in my heart.” Ever the Italian poet, Giulini expressed that sentiment to his musician friends at the first rehearsal before those final concerts. “For me, Venice is more incredibly beautiful every time I return. And so, gentlemen, are you.”

For more on Giulini see: A Man Who Refused to Judge.

*Thomas Saler, Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 86.

Lost and Found: A Different Way to Think About Your Life

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A very old question asks you whether you think of your glass as half-full or half-empty. But permit me to make a suggestion: think of your life in terms of what you’ve lost and what you’ve found over all the years you’ve spent on the planet.

Take all the victories and failures, the things you can do and the things you can’t anymore, the friendships you’ve lost and the ones you’ve gained and put them in a basket. Don’t forget to include what you’ve learned over the course of your life — learning in terms of knowledge found in books and the knowledge that only comes from experience. Add your greatest joys and your worst moments. Be sure to fill the bushel with physical skills and abilities too, talents you had once upon a time and all those you still possess, including the new ones.

If you do this, I’ll bet you find that your container includes some of the following:

  • That you are wiser than you used to be, in some small ways and maybe even a big way or two. Perhaps this is part of what is called Maturity.
  • That, especially as you approach mid-life, you are less easily rattled by some of the things that used to overwhelm you. To some extent, you’ve probably learned to cope or even mastered fears you thought you never could.
  • That you might not be as spry or as fast in a footrace, but that you care less about it than you did in your youth.
  • That you act more like the tortoise and less like the hare because you know (most of the time) that “slow and steady wins the race.” Or maybe just because you’re not quite as fast as you used to be and have figured out a strategy to deal with that, kind of like a baseball pitcher who loses his fastball and still wins by dint of craft, guile, and perhaps developing a new pitch.

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I’m sure, as you reach for things to put into the basket, that you will remember how much some of those that are gone mattered to you, and how some still do. But, I’ll bet you’ll be surprised to see that you’ve replaced a number of them, perhaps with people or activities or skills that compensate for many of those that have disappeared. Maybe not all, or, just maybe, just as much or more than what you’ve lost.

What we are talking here is about adaptation. Adapting to life and to aging. Grieving and moving on. Licking your wounds and coming back to find out what the universe still holds that is good for you. And that sometimes what is good for you is also good for others around you, in part because of the feeling your generosity gives you.

Not everyone can do this. If we’ve had too many losses, some of us don’t even go to the “Lost and Found” Department to find out whether what we value is there. Part of the problem is that no one told us that the “Lost and Found” Department of Life isn’t like the one in school or in a department store. In those places, if you are lucky, you find exactly what you lost — the thing itself.

No, life’s “Lost and Found” Department is different. It holds every one of the things you’ve lost and doesn’t usually give those exact items back, all precisely as we left them or as they left us. But if you go there and look hard enough, you just might find objects or capacities — people or experiences — as good as what you lost, a few better, a number worse. And if you travel there with the right attitude, you can find things that are priceless. One of those surprises is not actually a thing. It is the knowledge that it is often possible to adapt to those that are truly gone.

It’s a little like the way a heart breaks, a love is lost, and one finds that it heals or someone else enters your life or other people and activities compensate you. The “Lost and Found” Department of Life doesn’t work perfectly, of course. You must be willing to make the best of it. But, there is one thing that is essential if you are to give it and life a chance.

You have to go there and see what it contains. Without that, there is no finding what you’ve lost; or something new; or something better; or something that will do.

No guarantees, not even safety. But life is full of surprises, as I said. It might be time that you forget about looking at glasses half-empty or half-full, and look instead beyond what’s been lost and see what you can find in that new place, the yet to be discovered things in life’s “Lost and Found.”

Good luck to you. Good luck to us all.

This article was inspired by Frank Bruni’s February 1, 2014 New York Times essay on the subject of Peyton Manning and aging, called Maturity’s Victories.

The top image is the Lost Properties Office symbol at a railway station in Poland. The author is Mohylek. The second picture by Pete Unseth is called Glass Half Full. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Getting Over a Breakup: The Role of Love, Hate, and Time

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Most of us believe that hate is the opposite of love. Is it really? Both are intense emotions. If love captured you before a breakup, hate indicates a continuing strong attachment to that person even after. Put differently, if you are still angry, you are not “over” him or her. You have not let go. You have not moved on.

To continue feeling either love or hate means that the “relationship” is quite alive, even if it is quite different from what it once was. Perhaps you haven’t seen the person or spoken to him in years. He matters to you, even if it isn’t in a good way. He is living inside of you, playing on your emotions, influencing how you think and what you do; an imaginary companion who might not “know” you exist, but who shadows your existence.

As Edgar Rice Burroughs said:

I loved her. I still love her, though I curse her in my sleep, so nearly one are love and hate, the two most powerful and devastating emotions that control man, nations, life.

If you are really “over” someone else, you are (more or less) indifferent. You simply don’t care any more. You don’t spend any significant amount of time thinking about him or her, recalling either the memories of aching beauty or breaking heart-strings. And when something does remind you of the person, at most you might feel a bit wistful, but certainly not depressed or resentful. No, that individual now matters very little.

How do you get there, get over that lost love? Getting angry is a part of the process, just as allowing yourself the sadness of his loss. Talking to friends, or perhaps a therapist is useful, too. They need only listen to you and provide support, not judgment or advice. Don’t expect to heal quickly, but avoid holding on too long, hoping for love’s return. Don’t make comparisons to what others have gone through. One size doesn’t fit all.

Throwing out photos, old letters, and deleting old voice-mail and electronic messages can help. Don’t lacerate yourself by re-reading the same letters and greeting cards forever. Hold a mock-funeral service if you need to.

A quick return to dating usually doesn’t improve things, since some of your lingering emotions can cause you to become involved with your new acquaintance too deeply, too soon, on the rebound. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will begin to date but won’t permit yourself to get too close. Before you know it you will be back in a new and probably ill-conceived romance.

Don’t resort to alcohol or other temporary fixes that, in the end, can only make it worse. Don’t distract yourself too much, but do try to be active and get on with life.

Beware of bathing in your sadness. The shower of tears is too painful to endure longer than necessary. Remember that others have suffered in just this way. Do, eventually, get off the cross. We need the wood. It gives us something to build with.

You may have to reevaluate your former love. If you still believe that he was a paragon of virtue and perfection, you’re inclined to think of yourself as unworthy of his affections. If, however, you can see him realistically, you are more likely to recognize that perhaps his loss of you was greater than yours of him, even if he isn’t aware of it. Get a ladder and pull the S.O.B. off the pedestal (in your imagination only)!

Don’t expect vindication, one of the rarest commodities in the world. Waiting for your ex to apologize for not realizing your value is like waiting for next Christmas when you are 10-years-old and the calendar reads December 26th.  It almost never happens and when it does, it is much too late. Moreover, a search for the right words or actions to persuade him to change his mind is a fool’s errand. But then, we are all fools in love.

Although time moves slowly, let time be your friend. You need the tears, so fighting them and controlling them can sometimes be counterproductive, slow recovery down. Most of us survive and learn from these losses. Figure out why you chose this person and take care not to make the same mistake again, especially if you are inclined to put all your relationship eggs in one basket, discovering only after the breakup that you have few friendships to provide you with emotional support.

A breakup is like a mini-death. Treat it that way. Don’t isolate yourself. Remember a time when you felt better and believe that, however impossible it seems now, you will eventually feel better again.

As Oscar Wilde said, since “No man is rich enough to buy back his past,” there is only one direction left to go. Onward.

The top image is called Castle on a Hill by Jimmy McIntyre, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by russavia.

About Grieving, About Friendship… About My Friend Bob Calsyn

When you lose someone you care about, for a while you walk around in a daze. Of course, there is the sadness. But less often mentioned are the sense of disorientation and the random memories; the moments your eyes fill with tears and the fatigue you can’t seem to shake. For a while you are scattered and off-balance until, finally, the jumble of things settles down and life returns to “normal.”

I am writing this in the midst of the jumble. My friend Bob Calsyn died on Friday, September 21st. His wife Maria called from St. Louis with the news. I let a couple of my old friends know. They are Bob’s old friends too, from our days in grad school at Northwestern. And I heard independently from Dave Kenny, another NU alum. If Dave isn’t — I should say wasn’t — Bob’s best friend, then surely he was tied with the other contenders for first place.

I told Dave I was thinking of writing something about Bob and asked if he might offer some of his own thoughts. His remarks below are adapted from those he read at the memorial he attended in St. Louis on September 25th. (In each case that I quote him, his comments are set off from the rest of the text and begin with his name in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS).

What I’d like to do here is to tell you why Bob mattered to all of us. But the truth is, I need to tell you. I need to get this out to honor Bob — to honor the loss suffered by Maria and Bob’s children and siblings and all those who were closest to Bob. And, not least, to help myself with the jumble I mentioned at the start.

What follows is a series of recollections of a wonderful man and great friend, much of it in Dave Kenny’s voice; along with some of my own memories, a little of my own philosophizing about the nature of friendship and loss, and some things just about me. Someday, you too will be in the midst of the jumble. Maybe it will help.

DAVE KENNY:

I knew Bob for 44 years. When we met at Northwestern we had a lot in common: both oldest child of a large family, both lapsed Catholics, both of us had mothers who wanted us to be priests, and both of us had a strong commitment to social justice. We very quickly became friends. What Bob accomplished in four years at Northwestern was truly remarkable: earning his Ph.D., serving two years as a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War, doing a one year clinical psychology internship, and becoming a father, much of the time commuting 14 miles from Hyde Park to Evanston. The later incredible academic success of his sons Dylan and Chris was foreshadowed by Bob’s.

Bob, unlike me, continued in his commitment to social justice throughout his entire lifetime. He was passionate about ending homelessness and he worked diligently in this effort. I never told Bob how grateful I was that he let me play a small role in his work.

For the record, Robert Joseph Calsyn was a product of Rock Island, Illinois and Alleman High School; the child of working class parents. He graduated from Loyola University in Chicago before attending grad school. Bob served as the Chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, as well as being Director of its Gerontology Program.

There is something about schoolmates. At Northwestern, our group of graduate students was more than usually close. The Psychology Department was small, so we had lots of classes together, the way you do when you are 10 years old. We ate together, socialized together, went on double-dates; some of us roomed together. We passed through the same moment in history and the same stage in our lives in the same place. It was hard not to bond.

The men in the group played lots of softball and football and basketball against other Northwestern departmental conscripts. Bob usually played second base for our softball enterprise, which we called the Psyclones — a play on words since we were all studying to be psychologists. He played hard, but that particular game was tough for Bob, especially making accurate throws to first base. Still, Bob was an essential part of a pretty good team. Even if we’d have been slightly more perfect without him, we wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun or had the benefit of his “heart.”

In sports like touch-football Bob was fierce, taking particular pride in the devastating, bone-rattling blocks he delivered to opponents who couldn’t imagine them coming from a man who was no more than 5’8″ (173 cm) on a good day. Bob was no plaster saint. He knew the full range of four letter words and used them when necessary, as they tend to be in sports, especially in games played with the sweaty tenacity that Bob brought to them.

DAVE KENNY:

Our friendship endured and we saw each other in eight different states. Many of those visits were near water which Bob loved: the coast of Maine, Cape Cod, Long Island Sound, and of course, his beloved Anna Maria Island (where Bob and Maria had a vacation home). Bob was strange about water. He loved to watch and hear it, but he was not a fan of being in it. However, don’t forget that Bob grew up and spent most of his adult life near the Mississippi River. Maybe not going in the water made good sense.

I didn’t see Bob a lot after grad school. We’d visit occasionally, at first when I was teaching in New Jersey and he came to nearby New York City, later in Chicago, and a few times in St. Louis. Our relationship took the form of letters, then email and occasional phone calls. I got to read and critique some of his short stories; he helped with career issues for one of my children.

And yet, for me at least, a person like Bob lives inside of you in a continuous way even when there is no continuity in actual contact. He was always on an imaginary list of people who I thought of as my friends. Bob was someone who you were sure would be dependable, helpful, and unfailingly honest. He told you what he thought, not what he believed he “should” say or what he thought you wanted to hear.

We “knew” each other, could talk about anything. We knew where each of us was coming from — came from — in both a literal and figurative sense. He didn’t keep score. Bob was always there when you needed him, someone who was compassionate, gave sound advice, and was incredibly funny.

DAVE KENNY:

Bob had his own view of nutrition. He introduced me to Dairy Queen Blizzards. I remember him cooking donuts and beignets in his kitchen. We always had a 3PM cookie break when working together. For breakfast he would ignore his wife Maria — his Argentine bombshell — and sneak off to eat at Waffle House or Denny’s, not the healthy breakfast she suggested.

Bob and Maria (ca. 1994)

My friend retired from his faculty position in 2009. Not long after he was diagnosed with cancer. This made our contacts more frequent. Somehow Bob remained optimistic in spite of multiple tumor sites that never fully disappeared.

Bob continued to play tennis, the game he loved best, even though the treatment compromised his breathing. Singles were now out, so he played doubles. I didn’t see the down moments and I’m sure that there were more than a few. But his resilience, his ability to live life and to keep really “living it” and enjoying himself was astonishing. And he could still be there for me, as when I had a long conversation with him about retirement: whether to do it, when to do it, what it was like for him, and what it might be like for me. We had plans to see each other on the first weekend in October in St. Louis.

People find it difficult to talk with someone who is battling “Death,” a bigger than “Life” opponent with an undefeated record. It is, indeed, hard to know what to say. Mostly you listen, even if most of us think we must have some sort of magic words to deliver when, in fact, no such words exist. Bob made it as easy as possible.

The day after Bob died I heard John Adams’s musical composition, On the Transmigration of Souls, presented by the Milwaukee Symphony and Chorus. Bob liked classical music, so it seemed a nice coincidence; more than that, the composition is a commemoration of those lives lost in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. An interview with the composer on the New York Philharmonic website includes the following:

… I’d probably call the piece a ‘memory space.’ It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical place — in this case 9/11 — is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes well beyond this particular event.

‘Transmigration’ means ‘the movement from one place to another’ or ‘the transition from one state of being to another.’ … And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from an experience transformed.

I guess you hear what you want to, what you need to, what you can’t escape. Of course, I couldn’t help but think about Bob during the performance…

Bob managed to write a novel, all the while dealing with his illness. It is called Primal Man and you can buy it on Amazon. You won’t be disappointed. The story is a murder mystery that takes place in a university setting. This comes from a brief interview of Bob in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on September 4, 2011:

Q: Had you written fiction before?

Bob: No. but I’ve always read mysteries.

Q: This primal man is apparently an exhibitionist?

Bob: Primal man exposes himself to female students and throws them an index card that says, ‘Men are hunters, women are gatherers. Gather yourself home.’

Q: How does psychology figure in?

Bob: It helps you explore character. I was an administrator for many years. I thought writing a mystery was a more socially acceptable outlet than strangling my colleagues.

Bob was a confident man, but not arrogant. For all the scholarly articles he produced and all his advocacy for homeless, mentally ill people, he told me one day at the St. Louis Zoo that he thought of himself as a “journeyman.” Indeed, he considered each one of us who got Northwestern psychology doctorates in 1972 in the same light, with one exception. Dave Kenny was and is that exception, an internationally known academic who has changed the way people think about social psychology research, its design, and its analysis. But, I don’t believe Bob meant to disparage any of us, and certainly not himself. He simply knew that there was a pretty big difference between being Bob Calsyn or Gerry Stein and being Beethoven.

Bob didn’t care about or aim to be a great man. He was too busy living his life, loving his wife, doing his work. He was too busy delighting in his kids and grandchildren, playing tennis, and having a beer (but not at the same time)! The irony, of course, is that the way that Bob lived was a kind of un-self-conscious, rough-hewn work of art, something to be admired and emulated. As Marc Anthony said over the body of Julius Caesar in the Shakespeare play, “When comes such another?”

DAVE KENNY:

In thinking over my friendship with Bob, it occurred to me that Bob and I never argued and Bob never got mad at me. We disagreed all the time, but our disagreements did not result in arguments. Bob regularly told me that I was wrong, but he never did so in a way that said, “I’m better than you” or “You are a bad person.” He sincerely wished, as I did, that I was a better person. Bob did have lots of reasons to be angry at me: missing deadlines, drinking too much, not staying in contact… Bob would get angry at Republicans, at demagogues, and perhaps even his colleagues. But he channeled his anger against his colleagues by writing short stories and killing them off there.

Bob always was one step ahead of me. He left a high-powered college to go to a more low-key institution. He got married and had children, ended his difficult marriage, and remarried; he had grandchildren and retired — all before me. Now Bob, you have done it again and you have died before me.

Upon reflection, Bob was more of an older brother to me than a friend. He was doing things before me and giving me advice on how to do them. My big brother Bob helped me cope with all of the major transitions in my life, especially my divorce. We know that Bob faced a terminal disease and death courageously and remarkably. Again I will be following Bob, and I hope I can muster 10% of his courage, but I hope that mustering does not happen too soon.

Dave Kenny

We cannot know what others are feeling except by analogy to our own emotions. Those of us who have lost a friend may think we are hurting and we are, but surely the intensity and nature of the feelings experienced by those closest to Bob can’t be known, at least not by me. Everyone’s grief is different, formed by the tapestry of experiences they had with the departed — all the memories and struggles, the laughter, the kindness, and the human imperfections that are inevitable on both sides of any relationship.

For those closest, their lives will now be marked with the idea of “before and after;” before and after Bob died and how much that difference made. To all those who were closest to Dr. Calsyn, and to those (like me) who were a step or two back, my condolences.

That said, from the outside and some distance, it looks to me like Bob had a wonderful life. Too short, for sure, but wonderful. Not without pain or disappointment or hard times, but full of compensating joy, success, and love. He gave life and the people in his life everything he had. He traveled, competed, and he knew when to rest and take a walk on the beach. Bob didn’t “phone it in.” He lived more in 66 years than most of us would do in twice that time. Like the ballplayer who tries to stretch a triple into a home run and is thrown out at the plate, he was a thing to behold.

On the subject of baseball, I’m reminded of an old story about Babe Ruth, the most famous baseball player ever. Actually, it is about the Babe’s funeral, which happened on a particularly hot day in New York City. It seems that two of his old teammates, Joe Dugan and Waite Hoyt, couldn’t help but comment on the weather, especially since they’d served as their friend’s pallbearers and the heat hadn’t made that easier:

Joe Dugan: I’d give a hundred dollars for a beer.

Waite Hoyt: So would the Babe.

Here’s to you, Bob. How lucky I was to know you.

——–

The top image is the Calsyn Family (ca. 2001). From left to right: Bob’s son Dylan and Dylan’s wife Beth and their daughter Zoe; Maria, Bob, Soledad Van Emden (Maria’s daughter and Bob’s stepdaughter), Bob’s son Chris, Margaret van Emden; and John van Emden, Soledad’s husband. Since this picture was taken, three more grandchildren have arrived: Abigail, Ella, and Max.

The photos are courtesy of Dave Kenny. My very special thanks to Dave for his contribution to this essay, especially given the enormous difficulty he had returning home to Connecticut from Bob’s memorial in St. Louis. Thanks, also, to Judy Goodman, Steve Hanan, Angela Shancer, and Diane Tyrell for their helpful and speedy comments about an earlier draft; and for their friendship.

 

What Do Patients Think About Their Therapist? What a Counselor Does About “Transference”

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Patients wonder what their therapist is thinking. Therapists wonder what their patients are thinking. It is not much different from what happens between husbands and wives, parents and children, bosses and employees — or is it?

I’ve written about what doctors think about their patients before: What is Your Therapist Thinking? But today I’ll focus on what the patients are thinking about their counselor and how therapists are “supposed to” handle that. I say supposed to, because we don’t always do it well. It is one of the trickiest parts of a counselor’s job.

Patients have feelings and expectations about a counselor, in part, because he resembles someone else. This is called transference. In other words, the client’s sense of this new person is transferred from someone else who is important to him, simply because the new acquaintance resembles the old one. It happens automatically and without thinking; a kind of mistaken identity.

No, you don’t think your therapist has red hair if his hair isn’t actually red. But you do see him through the lens of your past experiences, and react to him because of certain real or imagined similarities to others. All of us do this in all sorts of relationships. It occurs whenever we have unconscious feelings and assumptions about someone who reminds us of someone else; which is a lot, even if we don’t know it. The feelings toward the old person (be it a parent, a sibling, a boss, or a lover) can become quite mixed up with the real human qualities of any new individual, including a new therapist.

Indeed, this is made easier by the fact that the therapist limits how much the patient knows about his personal life. In effect, the shrink is a kind of blank slate upon which the client “fills in the blanks” left empty by a lack of real information. Not surprisingly, all of us are prone to repeating old behavior patterns in new relationships; and, to the extent that a new person evokes old feelings about what the relationship is and what it can become, the transference can play out the patient’s repeated relationship difficulties right in the therapist’s office.

Take a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that your dad was a hard guy. He was critical of you, didn’t give you enough attention, and seemed to favor your siblings. Now, many years later, you meet your new therapist. Is he any of these things? To some extent it doesn’t matter. For example, the fact that your shrink only sees you once a week can reopen the tender wound of your neediness — your failure to win your father’s time and attention. You might feel that your doctor isn’t as available as you’d like him to be, in person or on the phone. You might interpret some of his statements as being disinterested, even when they are not so intended.

The counselor can be more important to you than he would otherwise be because of your unresolved, unconscious desire to get the affection and approval of this admired authority figure, who, like all authority figures, can easily remind you of dad. The hurt and/or anger that you feel when the shrink does not fill your need for a “good” father is almost inevitable. You might want to leave therapy because of it.

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What is a therapist supposed to do when this happens? If he reacts defensively to the patient’s demands or disappointments, he is unlikely to do him any good. In fact, the counselor who responds angrily can create one more injury of the same kind that was inflicted by the patient’s father, thereby adding to the client’s mistrust and misery. Even if the healer tries hard to give him what only a father can give, the patient will still not be satisfied. After all, the therapist cannot literally fulfill the childhood yearnings that come from anyone’s vanished youth. The hunger of a 10-year-old for good parenting can no more be satisfied when he is 30 than can a literal hunger for a good meal at age 10 by a delicious dinner 20 years later.

What the therapist can do is the following. First, he can be compassionate and understanding. He often anticipates that the patient’s old losses and resentments (his past disappointments concerning his dad) are likely to play out in the therapeutic relationship. When they do, the psychologist will try to gently assist the client to see that the feelings bubbling up are not fully appropriate, but come from the historical emotions attached to the father that have been superimposed onto the shrink. If the patient is open to exploring this, he will gradually be able to purge his internally complicated connection to his parent. This is a grieving process, a cathartic expression and understanding of the sadness and/or anger that continue to live inside of him, even if the parent is dead.

If all goes well in therapy, the therapist will eventually no longer evoke the transferential emotions; no longer remind the patient of the parent. And not only will his relationship with the therapist be less complicated, but so will all those other interactions with lovers, bosses, or friends which used to unconsciously trigger the same feelings. Finally, the old injuries will be healed sufficiently to be set aside, clearing the way to better social interactions in the future.

I am certainly not saying that all of the feelings that patients have about their doctors are mistaken. Therapists have the same potential flaws as everyone else. They can be good or bad, attentive or unreliable, too easily hurt or too distant. Some want your admiration and some don’t much care. They have feelings about the patient that grow out of their own relationship history. This is called a countertransference. Regardless, the potential for the transferential issues I’ve described is always there, just as the therapist’s countertransference toward the patient must be carefully watched to prevent the damage that it can do.

Do you find all of the above some sort of psychobabble that doesn’t apply to you? Trust me, transference is real. The more that you believe your relationships are “logical” and that your past doesn’t reach into your present, the more that it probably does, unless of course you have dealt adequately with it in some sort of therapeutic process, whether in treatment with a professional or in your own self-analysis.

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Therapy and transference are much more complicated than I’ve described. What you’ve read is a simplification based on a hypothetical relationship between a father and his adult child who is in therapy. If you are not in therapy, even if your relationships are going quite well, it still may benefit you to take a look at patterns of connection you make with friends or lovers: the kind of people you are drawn to and the types of individuals who usually “push your buttons,” get you angry, or disappoint you in some way. We can all learn a lot by just connecting-the-dots of our life history, seeing the resemblances among the people who keep returning, even if their names are different the second or twenty-second time around.

It is easy to blame others when relationships fail. Relationships aren’t easy. But, the more unsatisfactory and repetitious your social life is, the more likely that something in you needs attention.

The top painting is called Therapy by Gerhard Gepp. Apparently, the patient (a soccer ball or football) is thinking about being kicked around. Might he have transferential feelings toward the therapist and feel badly treated by him, as well? The second image is a photograph of Sigmund Freud in Session with a Patient, from the Seventh International Sand Sculpture Festival in Portugal. The artist is RHaworth. Finally, a cartoon of Freud Treating Moses by Moa1. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.