Leo, one of my cats, has no problem with questions of any kind. But in therapy personal disclosure is a common issue in therapy as patients wonder if it is intrusive to ask the therapist personal questions and therapists wonder how much to disclose. I have never found this to be an especially difficult issue. Taking a page from an early supervisor, I tell patients early in our work that they should feel free to ask any questions that they like of me. I tell them I will answer any that I feel comfortable with *and* that I think it is also important that we consider what the question is about for them. What is happening, what are they feeling that gives rise to this question today? Very rarely has anyone asked anything that felt intrusive or that I felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t answer.
But this issue touches into boundaries and the frame of therapy and needs to be handled thoughtfully rather than automatically.
Years ago, when I was trying to sort out just what was the nature of my relationship with my analyst and wishing that I could know that we would or could be friends when our work was over, he told me that he considered the analytic relationship to be very personal, as personal as any. That puzzled me because I knew the boundaries — we wouldn’t have dinner together or any of the kinds of things that friends do. Yet the relationship was very close. Therapeutic relationships occupy their own niche — neither friendship nor distantly professional, but a space which is both intimate and follows its own etiquette. And because it is different, an intimate relationship yet not mutually disclosing, it can be difficult to understand the boundaries.
The therapist is not the subject of the therapy and that is one reason that there may be some reluctance to answer personal questions. Not because there is something to be hidden but because focusing on the therapist’s life means turning away from that of the patient, thus it can be a resistance, this wanting to ask questions. Or the desire may rise from ordinary curiosity. This is why it is useful to consider what underlies the desire to know. It is important to remember that the therapeutic relationship is not like any other and that one of the goals of depth therapy is to make the unconscious conscious.
“The principle aim of psychotherapy is not to transport one to an impossible state of happiness, but to help (the client) acquire steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering. ” -C.G. Jung
When I was nine, we lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My mother, not an easy woman, thought I would never become a desirable catch, as I was too preoccupied with books. Her poking, prodding, and criticism did not work, so she enrolled me in a ballroom dance/etiquette course. As it happened, that same year, the University of New Mexico was mounting a production of Euripides’ “Medea”. They needed two nine-year-olds to play the sons, but it was thought that nine-year-old year old boys were too rowdy to take the discipline to be in a play like that, so they came to the dance class to pick two girls. I was one of them.
I remember being fitted for the costume, being taught to walk like a boy and to scream like a boy. I did not know what the story was, but it was fun learning those things.
I finally saw the play all the way through the day of the dress rehearsal. I remember standing in the wings watching. The meaning of the play rolled down the aisle like a dark cloud and swallowed me as I realized she kills her sons. In a moment, I understood what role I was playing. I can remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck and the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I woke up the next day with a fever and by the end of the day, it was clear I had the measles. I missed the whole run of the play.
Fast forward many years to graduate school. Medea continued to fascinate me so I decided to write my dissertation about her. I was struck by how modern her situation seemed. Imagine Medea as a girl, star-struck by the hero, Jason. Her name means cunning or knowing. She is the niece of Circe, granddaughter of Helios, daughter of a king. A powerful woman, a priestess of Hekate. Yet, when she sees Jason, described as good-looking, tall with long blond hair, a Fabio of his day, she becomes infatuated. Jason represents the glory and civilization of Greece, adventure. In order to help him to survive the tasks given him by her father as the price for obtaining the Golden Fleece, she must choose love over duty. In turn, in order to secure her help, Jason swears to marry her. In choosing Jason, Medea breaks the tie to family and home to go with Jason to a land where he is hero and she a barbarian.
Jason wants her, needs her, in order to successfully complete his quest. He is willing to give her what she wants—that feeling of being wanted and a place to hide her power and control. In agreeing to marry Medea, Jason gains everything—his life, the Golden Fleece, his safe return as a hero. In one version of the play, the Nurse raises the important question: “Why must a woman seek a man who seeks his special gold?”. Men with this kind of commitment, more to their quest than to the woman, seem unlikely to match the devotion of a woman like Medea. But she feels wanted, needed and so surely, perhaps she thinks, he must be the one for her.
I hear variations of this story again and again in my office from smart, competent women who spend their days wanting to be wanted and being disappointed time and again. To a degree I lied it myself when I was a young woman. Too often the women seem to see themselves as trophies or dolls on the shelf and convince themselves that whoever chooses them must be the right one, because after all, he is choosing her. And too seldom see themselves as also in position to choose, not merely to wait until being chosen.
Following from Lacan, who asserted that women want to be wanted more than they want to be loved, women too often seek to be desirable rather than to be fully known. Polly Young-Eisendrath explores this “wanting to be wanted” not as the normal outcome of female development but as a problem in her book, Women and Desire: Beyond wanting to be wanted.
“The compulsion to be desired and desirable undermines self-direction, self-confidence, and self-determination in women from adolescence through old age, in all our roles, from daughter to mother, from lover to wife, from student to worker or leader, whether or not the affliction is conscious.
Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions. We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want for ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others. We find ourselves always wanting to be seen in a positive light: the perfect mother, the ideal friend, the seductive lover, the slender or athletic body, the kind neighbor, the competent boss. In place of knowing the truth of who we are and what we want from our lives, we become trapped in images.” (Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to Be Wanted, p.3)
Q. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. None—the light bulb will change when it’s ready.
Well it is actually appropriate in talking about therapy.
How much does a person have to want to change in order to change at all? Basically nothing is going to happen as a result of therapy if the person doesn’t want to change. And it is a lot more complicated than it seems. Change is inherently destabilizing and uncomfortable, even when it seems highly desired. So there is a big difference between feeling you want to change and actually doing the changing.
I read somewhere that a famous guru when asked how to stop smoking said, “That’s easy. Don’t smoke the next cigarette.” All the work of therapy lies in that space between the question and the action.
The pattern of beliefs and feelings we have about ourselves, built up over a lifetime often with roots in our earliest relationships and never really challenged by us create the prison we live in. We don’t realize is that this prison has only three walls and no bars keeping us in. We don’t realize this because we stand in the corner looking at the walls in front of us and believe that there is no way out. Therapy is, at least in part, the process of turning around and discovering that we can walk out of our prison. That process is not easy and it can take a very long time, but stripped to bare essentials, that is what we do in therapy.
So you decide one day to go to a therapist to see what she can do to help you. In therapy, no matter how much you may believe you are controlling your responses and behavior, over time your habitual ways of thinking and acting about yourself and your world show up. These are the stories you tell yourself about yourself; they make up your prison. As the therapist questions your habitual responses and views and challenges your ideas about yourself and the world, ever so gradually, you start to change — daring to be more open, to question what you have believed, to try new ways of behaving. It is slow and subtle. The therapist has to be both patient, caring and willing to challenge you, the patient, even make you uncomfortable or upset. And be able to not take personally the feelings you have toward her or him. Gradually the story you tell yourself about yourself changes, not in kind but in degrees. The things that used to be self-defining recede a bit to allow other self-perceptions and beliefs to come to the fore. The more deeply ingrained the patterns, the longer it takes to change them.
The therapist doesn’t DO anything. We listen, we offer observations in the form of interpretations, we may confront but we have no magic to make change happen. It is entirely possible to spend months or even years in therapy without changing at all. The hard work of making the change — or, to return to our famous guru’s recommendation, not smoking the next cigarette — is up to the patient. So why see a therapist? Because it is very difficult to see yourself clearly. Just as a camera cannot photograph itself except in reflection, the kinds of changes that are the heart of therapy need someone to serve as a mirror, as someone who can see and hear you without having an agenda about or for you, someone who can be caring and brutal. I can’t think of anyone I know who has done that without help, including myself.
Got questions about therapy? Leave a comment or email me using the form on the right, and I will do my best to answer. Please keep questions general rather than about your therapy or therapist.
I entered private practice in the early 80s after my children were born. At first, I did a lot of school consultation and consultation to day care centers and to Head Start. But after my own children came along, I decided I no longer wanted to work with young children.
In my mid-30’s I started to wonder what I really wanted to do when I grew up. I considered going to law school. Or becoming a nurse and then a nurse midwife. Or going to medical school. Or getting a degree in public policy. In the end I came back to my beginning — I knew I wanted to do psychotherapy with adults.
Graduate school and my first job had given me the bare minimum training to be able to sit in a room across from another person and listen. Which I started doing. And I began to read again about therapy. I would find a book that spoke to me and when I finished it, I would look at the bibliography and start reading those books. I read Freud and Jung and neo-Freudians and post-Jungians. My father had always told me I could learn anything I needed to know from books, and though he wasn’t right, that notion stood me in good stead as I read and read and read. I came to the material without prejudices so I read widely — everything from ego psychology to archetypal psychology. It was all fascinating to me. Of course some of what I read resonated more than others and I found myself drawn particularly to two areas — object relations and that branch of post-Jungian psychology that developed in England and influenced by object relations. I fell in love with Winnicott, Guntrip, Balint and Samuels, Redfearn, Stevens Sullivan. I plowed my way through several volumes of Langs’ seminars.
Reading is fine and important. But no amount of reading can make anyone a better therapist. So I also sought both clinical supervision and personal analysis. I wanted supervision from therapists I knew to be better than me, more skilled, better trained, more experienced. And as Jungian analysts began to settle in Maine in the 80’s, I was able to find them. Between 1985 and 1998 I worked with three different Jungian analysts in supervision — one was quite classical, another embraced Langs’ therapeutic frame, and the third gave me the blend of psychoanalytic approaches and Jung that appealed to me.
Supervision is an important part of becoming a therapist. But personal therapy is even more important in my view. I had been in therapy in college and again in my mid-thirties. But what I wanted now was Jungian analysis. In 1986, a week before I turned 40, I started analysis with one of the first analysts to move to Maine, I worked with her for 3 years. I then started seeing another analyst, a man I ended up working with for 24 years.
But why Jung, you ask? It is the focus on meaning that really works for me with Jung. Symptoms have meaning which for me is a liberating way to understand life and behavior. Far more useful for me than something rooted in pathology and a notion of illness.
Jungians frustrate me sometimes. Sometimes it becomes too airy and I used to get annoyed at how little in the Jungian literature there was on technique. But the other side frustrates me too — with too much on technique and rules. Finding my own balance point in between has been a big part of my growth and development as a therapist.
One of my supervisors told me we practice what we believe. So I came to be a developmental Jungian (that’s what Andrew Samuels calls that branch of post-Jungian practice that combines Jung and object relations) because it is what I believe, because it makes sense to me in some deep and fundamental way. If you could see me work, you would not likely see much difference between how I am in session with a patient and how Paul Weston of In Treatment is or how most modern psychodynamically oriented therapists are. The difference lies more in how we view what we see, a difference not as great as some think, than it is in what we do. So, I practice what I believe.
Here are a few of the books that I read along the way that I have returned to more than once:
Now to what any of this means to you. If you decide to work with me, it helps for you to know that I am not an overnight sensation, that I have spent many years learning about and reflecting on what I do as a therapist and that I have also done my own work in my personal therapy. The specifics of my theoretical orientation may be of interest to you but as we sit with one another, they are not really important for you all.
Knowing that I come from a depth orientation matters because we will not be focused so much on solutions but rather on meaning– what does it mean in the context of your life that this issue persists for you? or what is this dream trying to tell you about yourself and your life.
As Sheldon Kopp put it, “The continuing struggle [in psychotherapy] was once described in the following metaphor by a patient who had successfully completed a long course of psychotherapy: ‘I came to therapy hoping to receive butter for the bread of life. Instead, at the end, I emerged with a pail of sour milk, a churn, and instructions on how to use them.’ “
At this time of year we often think and write about things we remember. So this is a good time to stop and think about memory itself.
I read a lot of memoirs. I remember discovering biographies when I was in 3rd grade — remember Landmark Books? I found them and began to eagerly read biographies of people like Clara Barton and Abraham Lincoln. But there weren’t many about women. In fact women’s lives seemed not to be deemed interesting until the women’s movement began to encourage women to speak in our own voices about our lives.
Among the many wonderful memoirs by women I have read in the last 25 years or so are:
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick
A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin
Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski.
The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon
Devotion by Dani Shapiro
Memoir necessarily engages in the problem of memory. Is what is remembered what happened or a narrative created on a mesh of emotion, images, and sensations? Diski says, “Memory is not false in the sense that it is willfully bad, but it is excitingly corrupt in its inclination to make a proper story of the past.”
Jung tells us: “The function of memory, or reproduction, links us up with things that have faded out of consciousness, things that became subliminal or were cast away or repressed. What we call memory is this faculty to reproduce unconscious contents, and it is the first function we can clearly distinguish in its relationship between our consciousness and the contents that are actually not in view.” (CW 18, p.39)
Now here is an example from my own life that I believe is a memory —
I am old enough that when I was in elementary school, we had a Christmas pageant in school, complete with angels and shepherds and everything. I will always remember the pageant when I was in second grade.
In my class, the best reader was to be made the head angel and would read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Well, I *knew* I was the best reader because I was reading several levels ahead of everyone in my class. My nearest competitor, Martha S., was a good reader, but I knew she was not the best. So I was absolutely certain that the head angel position was mine.
Imagine my shock, my horror, my outrage when on the day when parts were assigned, it was not I who was to be head angel, it was to be Martha S.! In my mind, this was a terrible injustice. Here I was, the very best reader in the second grade and I was to be consigned to the ranks of the ordinary angels! As it happened, Martha was a very pretty little girl with long blonde hair while I was chubby and brunette so maybe Martha fit the picture of an angel better than I did. Outwardly I accepted this injustice and quietly took my place in the ranks of the angels.
My mother made my costume, complete with glittery wings and a halo. We rehearsed. And then came the day of the pageant.
Martha stepped one step in front of the ranks of angels and took a breath to begin her reading. And then, just one word ahead of her came another voice from the back of the angels, reciting the story perfectly word for word. Martha got flustered but I continued on. Yes, I had memorized the whole story. I knew I was the best reader.
To my mother’s great credit, she did not get angry or make me feel bad. And what I did became the stuff of a story my family told about me.
BUT — is what I remember what actually happened? I certainly wanted to be the head angel. And to this day, I still know the words to the story. But if we could talk with Martha S., would she remember it the way I do? Or is it a narrative developed to fit the story of myself that I was weaving, the story of a spunky little girl who could make things go her way?
The words “memoir” and “memory” come to us from the middle English/Anglo-French word memorie, and from the Latin memoria, derived from memor, which means “mindful.” Russell Lockhart in Words As Eggs: Psyche in Language and Clinic traces it also to an Indo-European root smer– — which in one form refers to grease and fat. How is memory connected to ‘fat’? Think about how difficult it is to get rid of fat. It sticks. It adheres. It won’t leave. It leaves traces. A memory is what sticks, what adheres in the mind. Memory is the fat of the mind. Related words that share the history of memoir include remember, commemorate, memorable, memento, and memorandum. The word mourn also shares its derivations. The same root that gave rise to memory gives rise to mourn. When someone has passed away or slipped away, we mourn that memory. When we are in mourning, we are deeply engaged with the memory of that person. Our mind is full of memories. We can only mourn through memory and with memory. We mourn for what we had and can now have only in memory.
Think about a vivid dream you have had. When you write, it becomes something other than the dream. It becomes a text, an adaptation of the dream, but the dream, consisting of images, cannot be fully and accurately captured in words. The same with memory. The experience remembered is not a record, faithful in every detail. The memory is particular to the rememberer. Even in a family, the same event can and often is recalled differently by parents and children, even by siblings.
A symptom is an untended memory. It is the voice of a forgotten or banished part of ourselves… Memory is the medicine of the psyche – even, and especially when the memories are dark. – George Callan
That image is of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings. We see he has two faces in order to look ahead to the future and to look back to the past. New Year’s Dayis the province of Janus, as we look back on the year just past and forward to the new year ahead.
If you are inclined to make New Year’s resolutions, I am sure you already have a list of things you are vowing today that you want to do or accomplish in the year ahead. You have no doubt done this before and likely will do it again. If you are like me and most people I know, those resolutions tend to fall by the wayside in the twists and turns of daily life and by year’s end, they too often have become something to feel guilty about — the weight not lost, the gym rarely visited, the projects languishing in a corner somewhere.
I stopped making New Year’s resolutions years ago, when I realized that resolving the same things year after year because I had not met what I had resolved the previous year was no accident, it was meaningful. Most of the time the resolutions were about something I thought I ought to do or change in order to become some cultural approved version of being a better person. When my ex-husband and I realized we had never gotten past day 6 of Miss Craig’s 21 Day Shape-up Program, on any of the half dozen or more times we started it, I knew that we never would — because we didn’t want to do it!
So this year I suggest you try something different. Don’t make one of those resolutions. Instead, starting today, try paying attention to what you feel, including what you feel in your body. Give yourself the gift of your attention and loving care. Maybe write in your journal about what you are feeling today — about where you are in your life, about the year just ended, about what you have learned this year. Use the camera in your phone and take a selfie to see yourself today. Take a bubble bath. Or go for a walk. Cuddle with your pet — and/or your partner, your kids. Make a cup of tea and survey the landscape of your life and see what you like and what you don’t. Give to yourself.