The Therapist as a Secret Keeper

 

If Zora Neale Hurston is right, the “oldest human longing (is) self-revelation.But to whom should we show ourselves? How much is safe to disclose? When? At what risk?

We’ve all thought of this, but perhaps not of the costs and responsibilities of the one who listens to the secret.

I’ll try to address both the teller and the Secret Keeper.

The act of unveiling is fraught. We believe the uncovered one is alone in taking a chance. She gambles with her psychological nakedness.

Will she be mocked, rejected, used? Will her confidence be shared with others, publicized? Will the knowledge that comes to the listener/observer be turned against her? Will her vulnerability be exploited?

Priests hear confessions, therapists too: the speakers are ashamed or tentative. Their confidences are like objects packed with care, wrapped in cellophane, new and easily damaged. They’ve often never been opened.

To the client, they seem tarnished, in need of cleansing, but impossible to free of stain.

The disclosures must be understood as a gift. Here is the most delicate and fragile beauty the individual owns, no matter how ugly he believes it.

The “oldest human longing” takes the form of “admitting,” out loud.Admitting” as in a ticket to enter and a statement of guilt. The terror in the treatment room bursts the confines of a confessional space because here, unlike in church, the listener also sees you.

Your face is known.

Though priests in the confessional want to know everything, counselors should be hesitant. To the extent they control the conversation, timing is critical. A too-early disclosure might cause the patient to flee therapy, overwhelmed by the early exposure, his armor melted.

Whether in or out of psychotherapy, most of us share parts of our lives. The external elements include appearance, words, and actions: the public portion of ourselves. Though this evidence of our person carries dangers (as when we make formal presentations), it is commonly without oversized hazards.

Not so our “off the record” existence. Think of the whole of your history, personality, and behavior as individual pieces of a mosaic, like a stained glass window. All the excellence and perfections, flaws and cracks: the light and the dark.

Some parts are shared with some people, but often not enough for them to imagine the assembled multicolored glass. The therapist, however, comes to know the entirety of it or can conjure a perceptive, imagined awareness of the nondisclosed portions.

He should ask himself a question. Does he want to possess the most sensitive, private, anguished knowledge of you? What is the cost to him of keeping safe what he hears? He, too, is at risk. A different kind.

The more the psychologist knows of untold stories, shames and “weaknesses,” hurts and horrors, the more he might be perceived as an indispensable and unique person to the client.

The giver’s sense of debt for his acceptance of the gift and the tenderness with which the counselor treats it, the bigger the challenge and responsibility. Some think of the Secret Keeper almost as a being out of fiction, one who holds the divulgence in his soul.

For therapists, this can be too much for the small enclosure in which it is contained. If he cannot help to disentangle the patient’s transference toward him, his overlarge hopes and expectations, growth and eventual termination become difficult.

If the sufferer does not come to take risks and confide in others, the pedestal on which the healer finds himself is too high for his client’s benefit and for his own long term occupation.

Most of those in psychotherapy detach without a long lingering empty space which the practitioner used to occupy. The aura of absence shrinks as the patient’s world widens. If the therapist was skilled and his patient courageous, growth and awareness of new possibilities lead to unveilings and disclosures outside the clinic.

The analyst is a guide and an expert, but his job is temporary. Enhanced flourishing gained through treatment doesn’t smooth all the roads ahead.

At its best, the patient becomes a better driver over and around those potholes and a more resilient survivor of the worst of them. He seeks places and people new to him, free of the claustrophobia of his head. Reward and compatibility with others encourage the continuing adventure.

The encounters with new people and their acceptance of him might call up thoughts of the counselor, the one who first saw and valued what he disclosed.

Now, however, there is a larger, freer world elsewhere.

_______

The second image is The Whisper by Charles Blackman, sourced from Wikiarts.org/ The final object is Whispering Zephyr by Thomas Ball, sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Feeling Too Much or Too Little: The Emotional Tightrope in Life and Performance

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The charming 16-year-old could not watch the news. She was depressed, but not the victim of misfortune. Her parents had not mistreated her, life had not singled her out for unfairness. Rather, she was exquisitely sensitive to the pain of the human condition, to its terror — to the thousand little and big hurts, even those suffered by strangers. The news, with its roll-call of daily disaster, was unbearable.

All of this seemed in her nature, not her nurture.

For those of us not so fragile, there is a choice: how much of life do we let in (with its possibility of pleasure and risk of pain) and how much do we screen out to protect ourselves. Therapy patients, performers, and fictional characters display a range of answers. They are the subject of this essay.

The teen I mentioned was moved by art more than most, particularly those works that captured passing beauty and inevitable loss. The music of Mahler and late Schubert were on her list, along with the authors Virginia Woolf, Audrey Niffenegger, John Irving, and Julian Barnes.

Should this sound too sad, then I will tell you something else: the young woman was truly alive, not so numbed and deadened as the adamant stones that some of our fellow humans become. She perceived drama in commonplace events, while for most of the rest of us, those happenings pass unremarkably.

If we are lucky, our lives might be described as “balanced.” Our psychic doors are open enough to experience at least a partial glimpse of the dazzle and wonder of life, even if pain still finds entry points we hope to have limited to a degree. Indeed, in the music of Mahler and Schubert, my patient found both pleasure and pain.

Are most of us too defended against life and its inevitable disappointment and injury? By comparison to this troubled girl, do we risk a muted and gray existence? Does self-protection come at the cost of becoming unsympathetic to the misfortune around us and insensitive to the overwhelming sensuality of life, as well?

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues have evaluated something akin to these questions. Research participants reacted to a variety of photos. She and Lasana Harris predicted their experimental subjects would respond by dehumanizing extreme outgroups like the homeless. Pictures of those individuals produced a type of brain activation typical of disgust — the same kind of cerebral response characteristic of viewing objects, not people. Perhaps, unlike the sixteen-year-old mentioned before, some of us protect our emotions by responding to fellow humans as things. The evidence of history indicates disgust with such “Untermenschen” can lead to casual mistreatment and much worse.

A performance given by the storied English singer Kathleen Ferrier (seen in the newsreel above) and the conductor Bruno Walter illustrates part of our human dilemma: the tension between feeling too much or too little.

A 1947 Edinburgh Festival rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) was the occasion. This hour-long song-symphony portrays the transient beauties of life and concludes in a 30 minute Abschied (Farewell), to a friend and to life itself, based on ancient Chinese poetry.

The work’s last moments are a whisper of exquisite, heart-rending beauty as the singer reflects on the fact that while human life passes away, the world itself will bloom anew in spring forever. The last word — “forever” or “eternally” (“ewig” in German) — recurs several times, more and more muted against the fading consolation of the orchestra.

According to Neville Cardus, a critic for the Manchester Guardian, Ferrier was “unable to enunciate (at least some of) the closing words.” Moved by the music, she broke down.

Ferrier would soon became a celebrated singer in a life shortened by cancer, but she was then new to this music and in awe of Bruno Walter, the 70-year-old conductor who had been the composer’s disciple and given the work its world première in 1911. Cardus tells the story of his arrival backstage after the curtain calls:

I took courage and forced my way into the artists’ room, where I introduced myself to this beauteous (unself-consciously beauteous) creature. As though she had known me all her life she said: ‘I have made a fool of myself, breaking down like that.’

When Walter came into the room she went to him, apologizing. He took her hands, saying: ‘My child, if we had all been artists like you, we should every one of us have broken down.’

For Cardus, it was one of the greatest, most life-changing performances he heard in a long career as a music critic.

Ferrier achieved this without every last word — the rare occasion when an artist triumphs over an important rule: to have emotional expression and emotional control, thus enabling the audience to experience the feelings without restraint.

It is ironic that to recreate emotions one must, to some degree, constrain them; never forgetting she is a singing actress playing a part and not her offstage self or a member of the audience. Ferrier’s failure to observe the rule caused her embarrassment, no matter the generosity of Bruno Walter’s consoling words.

Those of us who are not artists confront our own version of the same dilemma Ferrier faced: emotional control threatening to mute life’s music and dull its pleasures versus emotions undermining the ability to live, and leaving one unprotected from “The Heart-ache and the thousand Natural shocks that Flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet said.

In the theater, the dilemma is depicted in Peter Schaffer’s play Equus, where the audience exits the performance wondering whether the destructive, super-heated intensity of a teenager’s uncontrolled feelings are, perhaps, less a problem than the bound-up, dryly analytic, over-controlled existence of the psychiatrist who treats him.

The Original Poster for the German Film,

The Original Poster for the German Film, “The Lives of Others”

The 2006 Academy Award winning film, The Lives of Others, offers still another example. Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi (East German Secret Police) officer, begins the movie as a friendless man, deadened to everything except his duty. His superior gives him the task of monitoring a playwright. Closely observing the rich intellectual, social, and romantic life of this artist both enlightens the officer and opens up his emotions.

While Wiesler acquires this vulnerability at great cost, he also becomes capable of enlivened human contact and empathy.

What, then, are we left with in this consideration of human emotion?

Dyscontrol, routine. Intensity, flatness. Sentiment versus stoicism.

Over sensitive, insensitive. Excitability versus indifference. Empathy versus disgust.

Dazzled, dulled. Passionate, sterile. Open, closed. Vulnerable, safe.

Or walking the knife’s edge in between.

Your choice.

The first image includes Korean Hahoe Masks. The author is Julie and the photo was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Few Relationship and Dating Tips

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What can one add to the guidance that people are always looking for in finding a mate? Here are a few things you might not have considered:

1. Don’t ignore all the little things. People often betray important disqualifying characteristics early in a relationship. In the heat of the sexual attraction moment, we might want to ignore those things that appear to be small problems. Does your new friend call when he says he will call? Does he show up on time? Is he really listening when you are talking? You might be able to forgive such failures now, but they can signal problems that will appear larger later on.

2. Are you attracted only to “bad boys;” or to women more concerned about how every inch of them looks in the mirror than to take the time to look at you? If so, you’d better ask yourself “why?” If you keep having bad relationships, perhaps it’s because of some of the people you are choosing to partner with. In that case, reflection on your decision-making process is in order.

3. Get past the small talk. Do you want to know someone well? You will have to ask them about more than their opinion of Michael Jackson’s death and the Cubs’ chance of getting to the World Series.

What things might you ask? If your date represents a good opportunity for a lasting and satisfying relationship, eventually you will need to know about his politics and religion, how he handles money and debt, whether he has made good decisions in life, and his capacity for emotional intimacy and openness; does he hold onto old friends and how does he treat them? How does this person deal with frustration, disappointment, and anger? Is he charitable and forgiving?

How does your companion explain past relationship failures? Can he be appropriately assertive? Is he too dependent on you and others? What are his relationships with parents and siblings like? How was he raised? Is his humor too often at your expense or the expense of someone else, perhaps including himself? You don’t have to know about these things right away, but you do need to know about them before your heart starts running the show and leaves your head behind.

4. Don’t expect your date to make you happy. You are looking for a partner and not a caretaker or parent (I hope). Don’t look for someone to make up for past injustices and misfortunes. Don’t expect him to shoulder most of the burden of bringing home the bacon (or rearing the children) alone. Don’t encourage him to make most of the important decisions for you or to expect you to make those decisions on your own.

5. Since most of you reading this are probably relatively young, its important to realize that people change. The person you are with today is not going to be the same in 10 or 20 years or longer. (It would be troubling if he is unchanged by the passage of time. Surely, in 10 years or more one should learn something new from the experiences of life).

There is an old saying that men expect their wives never to change, while women expect that they will change their husbands. If you subscribe to this theory, you are in for trouble. People change physically, and should grow in experience, knowledge, self-awareness, and compassion, but don’t always transform for the better or in a way that is compatible with the alterations that you will make yourself. Does the hot young person sitting across the table from you right now have the ability to grow and to adapt to your own growth? While you can’t know for sure, it would behoove you to have some opinion on the subject.

6. How much self-awareness does your date have? Does he understand what he does and why he does it? Does he know (or care) about how others perceive him and when (and why) he injures someone else? Can he look into the mirror and see himself for who he really is, not for who he might want to believe that he is?

7. Recognize that you are not going to change your new partner. People don’t change because others want them to, they change because they have come to recognize that their behavior isn’t working for them and the cost of continuing in the same way is too high. If you think the relationship will only work if your new love can be altered, think again.

8. How much of a role, if any, do alcohol and drugs have in your life and that of your romantic partner? People tend to minimize or deny the extent to which substance abuse is present. This is especially likely to be true if you come from a family where this kind of behavior was routine. Alcohol, for example, tends to fuel arguments as well as depression.

9. Recognize that the honeymoon always ends. The nature of new love is to see the other in an idealized state. Your friend’s self presentation, attentiveness, and kindness are not likely to increase over time. The flame of sexual intensity will not always burn so bright. Something more will need to be present for the relationship to continue to be satisfying.

10. What do your friends really think about your current romance? Sometimes they can see things that you can’t.

11. Are you looking for someone stronger than you are? Or are you looking for someone docile who won’t challenge you, but simply be devoted and doting? In either case you are almost certain to be in for trouble. Relationships based on this sort of inequity typically become fractious and unsatisfying for both partners. They can transform into hostile dependencies, where the strong, dominating partner feels unappreciated, and the yielding, self-effacing individual morphs into someone who is aggrieved and simmering, or shuts down.

12. Are you insecure? Can you bear to be without a girlfriend or boyfriend for very long? Do you need regular reassurance that you are “the one and only?” This gets old quickly. While that reassurance will temporarily calm your fears, your friend will almost surely tire of it, leaving you less secure if you don’t ask again for a sign of his devotion, and him feeling put-upon if you do.

As with a number of the concerns mentioned above, therapy is suggested if your self-worth requires the presence of an escort; along with constant bolstering and a tendency to lose yourself, forget about your friends, and give-in to your new love for fear that he will otherwise leave you.

13. Are you still in love with someone else? Is your new date on the rebound himself? The presence of strong feelings which are still attached to someone else can complicate your new relationship. You are discouraged from entering into a “rebound romance” for good reasons.

14. Do your values match up well with the your potential love? Do you share the same vision of life, the same goals; the same stance toward integrity, devotion, loyalty, work, and children? Not just in what you say, but in what you do.

15. Do you tend to be drawn to partners who are much younger or much older than you are? In the former case, this can suggest the need to dominate the less experienced partner or simply to be looking for good looks rather than something more lasting. In the latter instance, its possible that you might be unconsciously trying to find a parent figure or someone to rely on and take care of you. In either case, some honest self-reflection regarding this pattern is worth your attention.

16. If commitment is what you want, beware of the man or woman who says that he or she is not ready for a serious or long-term relationship . To date someone like this is rather like buying a shiny, dashing new car that will start to fall apart after six months.

17. Watch out when you hear yourself thinking that, although you can see that there are problems in your burgeoning twosome, you will stay a while to see if things get better since you aren’t (yet) risking a broken heart. Often your heart leaps ahead in situations like this and you discover that you are in love with the wrong person only too late.

18. Take your time! You might hear the clock ticking on the days of your life (or your life since your last relationship), not to mention the time left on your fertility, but rushing things out of desperation will prevent you from making the best possible choice. Remember, the point of this is not only to win the affection of the other individual, but to determine whether he is worth the winning!

The top photo is an Austrian Road Sign photographed by Pirosko. The second image is described as a “short animated gif with 2D-boy.” Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.