Why Therapists (and Others) Don’t Always Understand

How often we hear someone say, “I understand.” How often we think, “I only wish it were so.” Beyond the imprecision of language, I want to consider 10 reasons why true comprehension – recognizing the other person as he is and in depth – is difficult.

  • The fog of appearances: We instantly react to the individual in front of us, even before he makes a sound. Beauty (including a lovely voice) or its absence rose with the dawn of man. Sometimes revealing, sometimes obscuring; sometimes enhancing, sometimes diminishing. Sometimes all of the above.
  • Stereotypes: Beyond what we take from the person’s facial symmetry, shape, and size, other factors can cloud deeper comprehension. Gender, age, race, religion, and nationality interfere with vision beneath the surface.
  • Secrets and history: Polite conversation sets boundaries around self-revelation. Many of us believe we have been misunderstood – judged to the point of harm – and hesitate to reveal much. Even in therapy this is an issue, though with time and growing trust, significant secrets are often divulged. Without exposure, the job of comprehending you is far harder.
  • Our limited access to important data: Think about what information you might need to understand someone else. No one can access to all three sources below:
  1. The individual is the only person who perceives his life from the inside. He does not, however, see himself from the outside and will be shocked the first time he hears a recording of his voice. His grasp of his own motivations cannot be assumed accurate and may not reflect the work of the unconscious. Similarly, he interprets his life without the benefit of external perspective; except whatever is received, understood, and accepted of the other’s body language, tone of voice, praise or criticism. Most of us would be unsettled to know what others say about us in private.
  2. Friends and acquaintances hear what the same individual says about himself, what he reports of life apart from the observer, as well as experiencing his behavior in real time. Even his intimates must contend with the fact that “a mask of him roams in his place through the hearts and heads of his friends.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).
  3. Finally, the therapist has the most limited exposure to the client in real life. Ideally, however, the patient is more open to the therapist than perhaps he has even been to himself. The counselor has the training to “figure out” who is facing him, and the opportunity to ask the most essential questions with some expectation of penetrating to answers not offered in the public world. He sees not from the inside and not only from the outside, but,  from closeup, below, and through.

  • How remarkable are you? Though I evaluated and/or treated well over 3000 people, I encountered only a handful who were unique. Such individuals represent an enormous challenge to one’s understanding.
  • Countertransference: We can have reactions to our patients that grow out of our own unfinished issues with persons of consequence who they resemble in appearance or personality. This is called countertransference. Objectivity and unbiased analysis flees the evaluator under those conditions.
  • The limits of our experience. One who hopes to grasp the essence of another will not have encountered the whole of humanity. If, for example, most of his contact is with like-minded people (let’s say small town residents of one religion) he will be at a disadvantage with those whose backgrounds are different. On the other hand, therapist and non-therapist alike can meet an individual with whom he is “in sync.” In that event, both might find friendship and sympathetic intuition effortless and uncanny.
  • The listener who wants to be right. Insecure counselors can be troubled, sometimes unconsciously, by their own uncertainty. They tend to find it more comforting to put people in a box than to recognize when someone doesn’t fit. The job of evaluator (not a judge) calls for two qualities not often mentioned. First, enough confidence to say to yourself, “I don’t understand yet.” Secondly, “I can do better and I’ll work until I get this right.” Therein they offer an odd combination of humility and security. From time to time the therapist must clean the slate and start over.
  • The observer’s own emotional wounds and defenses: Our personal wounds (we all have them) place a limit on the ability to absorb, accept, and seek the truth of all humanity. Indeed, who is to say there are not many truths. The best of us never fathom all we encounter.
  • The listener’s capacity and willingness to endure the other’s pain: Hearing personal stories, even with the therapeutic distance healers work hard to achieve, still creates vulnerability to the most poignant encounters. Too many such episodes close in time risk either overwhelming the counselor or making him callous. To understand the human condition one must recognize his limits.

Final thoughts. Treatment by someone who opened-wide your self-understanding can make you believe no one on the planet will ever know you so well. I’ve long believed that if you then allow yourself to take more real-life personal risks, other satisfying and close relationships are achievable. Nonetheless, the special nature of a therapy relationship may include a hard-to-duplicate quality of perception and acceptance “as you really are.” You then will want a friend or lover who is psychologically-minded, a patient and dedicated listener, and one who makes the effort to approximate what an expert analyst can manage. This might be a tall order.

Do remember this: you and the therapist might not have much in common beyond his comprehension and kindness. Interests, compatible temperaments, and world view count for a lot. He exists, as well, in a fantasy world of your creation: literally, too good to be true. Were the light-reflecting cellophane of illusion to come off the package, you’d find his unshaven, distracted, and ill-tempered alter-ego – occasionally.

Another thought. A psychologically profound understanding of your inner workings isn’t always essential for a happy relationship outside of the office. Love and acceptance, even without full knowledge of all your moving parts, can go a long way. Not even your counselor has a total grasp of himself or anyone else. That said, his success at his work doesn’t require perfection.

Anyone close is “out of this world.”

The first image is called Rorschach-like Inkblot by Irion. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The painting that follows is Vassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI, 1913. Finally, just above, is Honore Daumier’s Couples Singers, as sourced from Wikiart.org/

How Do You Know When a Relationship Can Be Saved?

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We all lose friends and lovers. We all hope there is a way — some way, some how — to recapture the companion, erase the slight, stitch up the wound and go back to the “days of wine and roses.” Time is spent thinking, dreaming, wondering, planning, and — very often, trying — to put the Humpty Dumpty relationship back together again.

Here is one possible guide to what might produce the loss and a second list of the signs suggesting you might succeed where “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” failed.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

  1. One or both parties blames the other, taking no responsibility for any part of the rift, and refusing to be enlightened by either the partner or a therapist. I am excluding frank physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, as well as alcohol and drug addiction from the list of causes. Any of these compound the problem of saving the partnership.
  2. A tendency to store things up. Some people are hesitant to express their discontent frankly, even as the years pass. Short of mind-reading, the partner then cannot be assumed to know of the brewing disturbance until the anger blows up.
  3. Lack of self-awareness. Such a person doesn’t understand the negative impact he is having on his lover or friend. He is the counterpart to the person just described who fails to communicate his unhappiness.
  4. The unwillingness to compromise or work on changing yourself if the companion does specify his misery.
  5. The practice of “counting” and weighing the various kindnesses, concessions, and compromises you make on behalf of the other, as well as his, always smaller number (as you perceive it). A rough equity is desirable, but absolute equality is impossible to achieve. As my friend John likes to say, “Buddies don’t count.”
  6. Jealousy of the other’s success or of his closeness to his life partner or additional companions.
  7. The failure to evaluate your own relationship history, including unresolved issues from childhood that might impact your behavior toward the friend.
  8. Excessive self-effacement. Putting the other first to the point he experiences a sense of entitlement and you believe you are taken for granted. The tendency to place another on a pedestal points to likely self-esteem issues  — in you.
  9. The expectation that what you do (perhaps your job, for example), whether in or out of the home, qualifies you for special treatment.
  10. The friend or lover is replaced with someone else, though the betrayal might be a secret.
  11. Faux apologizing. Political style apologies (“I’m sorry if I hurt you”) fail on several levels: the precise nature of the injury isn’t specified, no real responsibility taking occurs unless the “if” is removed, and one needs a concrete plan and desire to prevent more pain, as well as an offer of restitution.
  12. Low priority placed on the relationship. Partners can feel abandoned to the loved one’s dedication to work, substance abuse, favoring a child over the spouse, overcommitment to his family of origin, or hobbies.
  13. Unrealistic expectations of what a good relationship should be.
  14. A tendency to be critical and/or judgmental.
  15. Betrayal. This can take the form of secretly assisting someone who wishes to undermine your buddy; and other, more dramatic acts of infidelity.
  16. A successful grieving process. When estrangement happens, either member of the dyad can begin to mourn the loss of the friend/lover. If he finally comes to be at peace with the rift, his willingness to try again is substantially reduced. He has achieved the much-mentioned state of “moving on.”

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WHAT MIGHT SIGNAL THINGS CAN BE PUT RIGHT?

  1. Both parties want the relationship to resume. Yes, two people start a friendship or romance, and both need to work on putting it together, but only one is needed to end it.
  2. You still possess an abiding love for the other. If memories of the best of times bring a smile and affection, a rekindling of the contact may be possible.
  3. You share a history impossible to replace.
  4. Readiness on both sides to discuss the painful issues face-to-face.
  5. Willingness to accept responsibility. Remember, however, Cheech Marin’s famous line: “Responsibility is a big responsibility, man.”
  6. Self-awareness.
  7. A tendency to appreciate the good qualities in the partner, rather than a blanket vilification of him.
  8. Openness to compromise.
  9. The capacity to review your life and history — the patterns that become apparent — and change them.
  10. Understanding what a sincere and complete apology requires and the desire to deliver it.
  11. An agreement to alter the rules of the relationship, being precise about what the new guidelines require of you, careful not to agree to those conditions you can’t stomach, and putting in place a system that will evaluate the compliance of both people.
  12. Going forward, the assertiveness to communicate future unhappiness before it poisons the relationship.
  13. The capacity to set “counting” aside.
  14. Resolving any jealousies.
  15. Learning to listen and ask questions.
  16. Giving the partner’s well-being increased and abiding priority.
  17. Realism and acceptance of the fact that no relationships in life are ever perfect.
  18. Ultimately, there must be forgiveness, lest the couple take turns in using the past as a weapon. Whether intended or not, the past is as lethal to love as WMD are to nations.

This is not a complete list, but a starting point in your analysis of what went wrong and whether companionship can be put right. The union of two good people doesn’t guarantee a joyous and congenial match. Compatibility isn’t always present.

Redeeming a broken relationship is rarely an easy thing. Be prepared to work hard and hope your partner is equally prepared. If a resumption of your friendship is what you want, do what you can lest you live in regret for not having tried.

I’ll leave you with two quotes about friendship that apply equally to romantic love:

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
― Bob Marley

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
― Linda Grayson

The top image is Bromance at its finest, as sourced from Wikimedia Commons and created by smellyavocado. The second photo, called Strawberry Banana Smoothie, is the work of Courtney Carmody and comes from the same source.

Confidence and Ignorance: Not as Far Apart as You Think

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Every woman should meet Anatole Kuragin. Indeed, you probably have, but don’t know it. He is dashing, carefree, devil-may-care, self-assured, and self-deluded. As one character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace says of its two ladies’ men, “Dolokhov and Anatole Kuragin have driven all our ladies out of their minds.”

Prince Kuragin is a prince of a fellow literally, but not figuratively. He’d be described as a “player” today:

He walked with a restrained swagger than would have been ridiculous if he had not been so good-looking and if his handsome face had not borne an expression of such benevolent satisfaction and good cheer. … With women Kuragin was much more intelligent and simple than in the company of men. He spoke boldly and simply, and … had a most naively cheerful and good-natured smile.

On one particular woman, his effect is to “make her feel constrained, hot, and oppressed.” Hot seems the right word even as we now interpret it, almost 150 years since Tolstoy’s work was published.

But looking into his eyes, she felt with fear that between him and her that barrier of modesty which she had always felt between herself and other men was not there at all. Without knowing how herself, after five minutes she felt terribly close to this man.

Part of Prince Kuragin’s impact is doubtless due to his purely physical qualities. But Tolstoy makes the point elsewhere that Kuragin is, in fact, not intellectually talented or hard-working. His confidence comes, in part, from his lack of self-awareness and the gift of not reflecting on who he is, what he does, the errors he makes, and the wounds he inflicts.

Anatole was not resourceful, not quick and eloquent in conversation, but he had instead a capacity, precious in society, for composure and unalterable assurance. … Besides that, in Anatole’s behavior with women there was a manner which more than any other awakens women’s curiosity, fear, and even love — a manner of contemptuous awareness of his own superiority.

Keep Prince Kuragin in mind as you read this excerpt from an essay by Cornell University’s David Dunning, We Are All Confident Idiots:

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers — and we are all poor performers at some things — fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

This isn’t just an armchair theory. A whole battery of studies conducted by myself and others have confirmed that people who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge. College students who hand in exams that will earn them Ds and Fs tend to think their efforts will be worthy of far higher grades; low-performing chess players, bridge players, and medical students, and elderly people applying for a renewed driver’s license, similarly overestimate their competence by a long shot.

Such individuals are confident because they look at themselves through the distorted lens of their own self-delusion. In the case of a cad like Kuragin — one who has his way with people and then discards them — his self-image is that of a person who is noble and intelligent, despite the obvious characteristics of foolishness, impulsivity, and unreliability Tolstoy impresses on us. Since he is “irreproachable” in his eyes, each of his acts must be good. Men and women of this type reason from an abstract belief about their own value, which automatically confers propriety on all of their behavior. If you suggested he had done something bad, he would reject your opinion and find a justification for his action. You would be told you are too critical or ignored or rebuked for your own shortcomings.

We are dealing with someone who is narcissistic, so in love with himself he doesn’t have room to love others. He is not trying to be hurtful and would be astonished to see himself as he is. Just as unfortunate, he is ignorant of much else in life, including his own level of competence.

Now consider this comment, also from Professor Dunning, who is talking about competence alone:

Because it’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.

OK. My point here is not to make you feel bad about yourself, so I’ll change perspective again and leave you with this thought.

We just had an election. Some of the candidates — now our elected representatives — were enormously confident. Indeed, among us there are those who were impressed by their confidence. These officials will now be leading our city, our state, our nation.

Uh-oh!

It’s Not Going to Happen to Me

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It’s not going to happen to me.

“Why?”

Well, because I’m young. Sure I smoke, but so did my grandfather and he lived to be 97. Sure I eat a lot and I’m overweight, but so does my mom, and she can still do cartwheels. Besides, I’m a good person — bad things don’t happen to really good people. And, I have a strong relationship to God. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen. He’s on my side.

OK, I don’t know if it is a He or She, but I’m goddamn sure about God being on my side. I’m a spiritual guy. No, not the kind that has to go to church all the time, but God knows my heart is in the right place. I even gave 50 cents to a homeless guy a couple of years ago. Besides, I’ve been lucky all my life. And I’m careful, I have very good judgment. I look both ways before I cross the street. I plan in advance. Not to  mention, I’m really smart. I always got good grades in school. And before anything bad happens, I’ll see it coming and get out-of-the-way.

OK, sometimes I lie to the boss, sometimes I do a side job for cash so I can avoid paying taxes, but who doesn’t do that? The government would waste it anyway. I’m clever. I’ll never get caught.

Sure, there are some things I haven’t taken care of yet, some stuff I need to start, some projects I need to finish. But, crap, I’ve got time, plenty of time. There’s always tomorrow or next week. What’s the rush?

If I really wanted to stop smoking I could stop, but I enjoy it. And even if I do trip myself up somehow or some way, there will always be other chances. What’s more, I’ve got people looking out for me. If I were in trouble, they’d warn me and I’d change course.

The bad things that have happened to me have been someone else’s fault. I’ve recovered. See! I’m as good as new!

What’d you say? You said I drive too fast? Heck, I’ve got terrific reflexes, great hand-eye coordination. I’ve never had an accident, not even a traffic violation. I know what I’m doing.

Yeah, I drink, sometimes too much, but I never drive when I’m tipsy. How do I know? Well, I can just tell. I know myself. I don’t make dumb choices. OK, sometimes I have unprotected sex with people I have just met, but I don’t have sex with those kinds of people who would have AIDS or herpes or something. I guess I wasn’t always faithful to my last girlfriend either, but, I mean, who is? Jeez, I’m a man, I have needs, I have urges. I just do what other men do. What’s wrong with that?

I’m smart. I’m good. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be OK.

It’s not going to happen to me.

What you’ve just read is an imaginary conversation, not intended to resemble the words or attitudes of anyone living or dead, and certainly not the gentleman pictured. The top image is called Smug Santa, taken in 2008 at the New York Santacon by istolethetv and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Princess Merida.

Are You Narcissistic?

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Have you ever been called a narcissist? What does that mean? Let me offer you an image that might help you understand it.

Imagine that you are standing in front of a mirror, but at some distance from it. You can see yourself, but you can also see a great many other things around and behind you. Now envision yourself walking toward the mirror.

If you get close enough, you will see only one thing: yourself. It is not necessarily that you are indifferent to whatever else might be behind and around you; rather, you are so taken with your own likeness, that you become unaware of other people nearby and how they might be faring.

That is narcissism: a fascination with and almost exclusive focus on yourself. The word comes from the Greek myth about an unusually attractive young man named Narcissus, who falls in love with his reflection in a pool, not aware that he is looking at his own image. Inevitably he perishes because he cannot get over this preoccupation.

At the extreme, too much narcissism becomes a Personality Disorder. That means it is a pattern of behavior and internal self-involvement that is rigidly pervasive and leads to problems in relating to others. People who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder tend to lack empathy for others; they are grandiose in their inclination to overestimate their worth. They usually assume that others will not only share in this high appraisal of their value, but treat them accordingly. Indeed, they expect to be admired and take that admiration as an entitlement.

The word insufferable comes to mind.

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Such people believe that the rules that apply to most others might not apply to them because of their special qualities. Nor do they clearly see the injuries that they inflict on others; or show empathy even when such injuries are brought to their attention. If you are useful to a narcissist, able to help him advance his agenda, then he will probably want you around.

At the moment that you are no longer of value, however, or have been replaced by someone deemed better or more useful, you are in danger of being set aside or discarded.

The narcissist tends to have fantasies of great achievement or idealized love and exploits others. And when his behavior fails to lead to the result that he believes is his due, it is rare for him to fully recognize and take responsibility for that failure. Without that awareness, circumstances and other people are blamed, and he is likely to continue on the same unfortunate path indefinitely.

And to answer the question posed in the title, given the blind spot just mentioned, if you are narcissistic, it is unlikely that you will so identify yourself.

Initially, you might find such a person dashing, enormously self-confident, and appealing, perhaps even a visionary — definitely a big personality. Closer and more frequent contact, however, begins to reveal the dark side. Loving someone else is difficult for the narcissist, who is already in love with himself.

Do you need an example?

At least as he has been represented in the press, the Governor of South Carolina will serve that purpose. Obviously, one cannot diagnose him or anyone else on the basis of news accounts, but they suggest that he might fill the bill.

He is said to be taken with himself, preoccupied with his achievement and appearance, and fancies himself (and his South American lover) as sharing some sort of idealized, almost mythic love. Meanwhile, in the course of his affair, the wife and kiddies back in the States were set aside; even his responsibilities to his constituents were ignored, as he took secret trips to visit his girlfriend, leaving South Carolina without anyone in charge while he was away.

I suspect that you know some people who are pretty full of themselves and might have some of the other characteristics I’ve mentioned.

Want to change them?

Good luck.

Personality Disorders of this kind are not easily altered. Indeed, such people rarely see the need for treatment — their reflection in the mirror looks more than good enough to them. Self-awareness is not one of the narcissist’s strengths.

No, change won’t come easily.

A better question to ask yourself would be the following: why would you WANT to be with him?

The painting at the top of this essay is Narcissus by Francois Lemoyne, from 1728, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second image is Caravaggio’s take on the same subject (1594-1596), from the same source.