Fat Arms

A couple of years ago my book was reviewed in the journal Fat Studies. It is an interesting experience to read how someone else interprets what I wrote, and by extension, my life. The review is positive and I am grateful for it. But there was something at the very end that gave me pause.

In the book I wrote:

“For all the work I have done to come to terms with and embrace my body, for all that I have embraced fat acceptance and eschewed dieting and body loathing, there remains a pocket of shame about my body that gets reawakened every summer – I have very fat upper arms and though there is no sleeve that would hide that fact or make my arms look slender, the thought of baring them in a sleeveless dress fills me with anxiety and shame. It is as if every bit of shame and anxiety about revealing my body becomes located in my arms and only if I keep them covered, can I dare go out into the world. I seize upon this wonderful quote: “when it comes to dressing myself, i live by a very simple principle. i am fat, therefore, i look fat in everything; consequently, i can wear anything.” (Selling). I chuckle and I get it but still, sleeveless? How could I move about in the world knowing there is no way for my invisibility cloak to hide my arms? All this work and the thought of showing my arms undoes me. The work goes on. I support the right to bare arms. Maybe next summer my arms can go bare.” p. 134

My point in writing about the fact that I still shy away from going sleeveless in the summer was to show that coming to body acceptance is a process, a journey rather than an event. We all have good days and bad days. Days when we feel on top of the world and invincible. And days when we can’t stand ourselves. That is how it goes. In an interview in Huffington Post, Leslie Kinzel who has been writing and talking about fat acceptance and body acceptance for years now says:

I am in a place where I love my body! I got there mostly because I worked really hard at it. It’s possible in spurts, but we also have to acknowledge that there are also going to be days that you hate the way you look. For me, it’s [loving your body is] a code for acknowledging that I’m going to have good days and I’m going to have bad days, but I’m not going to beat myself up about either. I’m just going to accept that these feelings about my body are going to change from day to day, as well as 10-20 years from now. This is a process. It’s not a destination.

That is how it is with me and my upper arms. And as I have talked with other women over the couple of years, lo and behold, I discover I am most definitely not alone in my feelings about my arms. 

So when I read at the end of the review: “While I wish for Fuller to sing and dance with her bare arms waving in pride and joy of the beautiful bounty of her body, this book remains provocative and honest in its articulation.” — the second to last sentence of the review, I feel a bit of protest. I am in my 70s now. Age leaves its mark on my body. My hair is white and not as thick as it once was. I am less mobile than I once was. But this wonderful body has brought me to this age, has borne my children, been a source of great joy and sorrow, of delight and pain. I fully embrace and accept my body. As I was starting to write this yesterday, I happened upon this and found the perfect expression of what this is about for me — what has beauty got to do with it?

“Rather than fighting for every woman’s right to feel beautiful, I would like to see the return of a kind of feminism that tells women and girls everywhere that maybe it’s all right not to be pretty and perfectly well behaved. That maybe women who are plain, or large, or old, or differently abled, or who simply don’t give a damn what they look like because they’re too busy saving the world or rearranging their sock drawer, have as much right to take up space as anyone else.

I think if we want to take care of the next generation of girls we should reassure them that power, strength and character are more important than beauty and always will be, and that even if they aren’t thin and pretty, they are still worthy of respect. That feeling is the birthright of men everywhere. It’s about time we claimed it for ourselves.” -Laurie Penny

I support the right to bare arms, and the right to cover them.

On Not Being Able To Paint

That’s my art desk. It is suitably smeared with paint and certainly looks like I spend a lot of time there. But…

My brother is a painter. He paints trompe l’oile – which means fool the eye. Here is one of his paintings. 

 

Painting by Ken Fuller

Not my style but he is good at it. Somehow that he is an artist and was also my mother’s favorite led me to avoid art, focusing instead on intellectual pursuits. Still something in me kept wanting to paint and draw. My brother once said that anyone could draw, which was not encouraging to me at all. I took the art classes in school that were required but once finished with them I turned away from painting or any kind of art for many years. I think the last thing I made was a paper mache dog that I meant to be a dachshund but looked sort of like a weird brown worm with legs and ears.

Maybe a class would help

I lived in Portland, Maine for a long time. Portland is the home to a well regarded degree- granting art college. In the early 90’s I decided to take a drawing course through their continuing studies program. I hoped to find a class for people who did not think of themselves as artists, a class that would support and encourage people like me who wanted to draw but were intimidated by the doing of it. I did not find that — the people in the course saw themselves as artists and then there was the critique of every assignment. I dropped out.

A couple of years later my good friend and I found two wild wonderful women artists who were offering classes for people just like us. And it was just what I needed. Supportive, encouraging, full of laughter — a place where my very timid artist self could creep out and start to experiment, to express myself in paint.

Along the way I discovered that I love art supplies. I loved accumulating tubes of watercolors and oil paints. Lots of them. Brushes. Paper. Canvases. I was a very well supplied pretty unproductive artist. After a while the class died out. I painted a little more. I used them in my analysis. But away from the class, just on my own I struggled to paint anything. And then I stopped. And then I gave away all my supplies.

Fast forward to the last few years when I discovered the wonderful world of online art courses. I began again to accumulate art supplies. My lust for paints and brushes and the like was reawakened. I even did a few of the projects. But I still felt inhibited. And besides I was finishing my book. I watched every video. I liked the idea of mixed media. Images of potential projects would come to me but they never came to life on paper, mostly because I hated that I couldn’t bring into being what my mind’s eye saw.

Painting and Analysis Intersect

In addition to being a therapist, I was also in Jungian analysis for a long time — we ended just over 3 months ago. It was where I could struggle with my demons and learn more about myself. You might think that therapists make good therapy patients but really, not so much.

One of the features of Jungian analysis is opening to express feelings, experiences creatively — in art or poetry or writing or dance — a transformative process. As I said above, drawing and painting I kind of consigned to my brother. He was good at; I believed I was not. But writing — now that is a different story, I write easily and without fear, unlike what happens when I attempt to express myself in pigments on paper. Whatever I painted, I then looked at with a critical eye, a judging eye rather than seeing it for what it was, an effort to express something.

My analyst kept urging me to paint. And I would — for a while and then I would stop again. It was an ongoing struggle for me. I understood that the very fact that writing came so easily to me made painting important for my growth, not as an artist but of my self.

Recently I remembered a book I read at least 30 years ago — and truth be told, did not really understand when I read it. It is a bit of a classic published in 1950, written by Marion Milner, herself an analyst. I dug out the book, On Not Being Able to Paint. And began to read it. There in the foreword was this:

It is fascinating for the reader to follow the author’s attempts to rid herself of the obstacles which prevent her painting, and to compare this fight for freedom of artistic expression with the battle for free association and the uncovering of the unconscious mind which make up the core of an analyst’s therapeutic work. The amateur painter, who first puts pencil or brush to paper, seems to be in much the same mood as the patient during his initial period on the analytic couch. Both ventures, the analytic as well as the creative one, seem to demand similar external and internal conditions. There is the same need for ‘circumstances in which it is safe to be absent-minded’ (i.e. for conscious logic and reason to be absent from one’s mind). There is the same unwillingness to transgress beyond the reassuring limits of the secondary process and ‘to accept chaos as a temporary stage’. There is the same fear of the ‘plunge into no-differentiation’ and the disbelief in the ‘spontaneous ordering forces’ which emerge, once the plunge is taken. There is, above all, the same terror of the unknown. Evidently, it demands as much courage from the beginning painter to look at objects in the external world and see them without clear and compact outlines, as it demands courage from the beginning analysand to look at his own inner world and suspend secondary elaboration. There are even the same faults committed. The painter interferes with the process of creation when, in the author’s words, he cannot bear the ‘uncertainty about what is emerging long enough, as if one had to turn the scribble into some recognisable whole when, in fact, the thought or mood seeking expression had not yet reached that stage’. Nothing can resemble more closely than this the attitude of haste and anxiety on the analyst’s or patient’s part which leads to premature interpretation, closes the road to the unconscious and puts a temporary stop to the spontaneous upsurge of the id-material. On the other hand, when anxieties and the resistances resulting from them are overcome, and the ‘surrender of the planning conscious intention has been achieved’, both – painter and analysand – are rewarded by ‘a surprise, both in form and content’.

I sat down this morning and looked at a blank piece of watercolor paper. Nothing came for what felt like a long time. And then I began to make marks on the paper. No image in mind of what I wanted it to be. I just let the brush make marks until  I felt done.

As my analyst did, I often suggest to my patients that they paint or make collages or write or dance or work with clay. Most often they, like I, balk, resist, say they don’t know how or what they create isn’t any good. For some of us the road to being able to express ourselves is long and often hard, but it is worth the journey.

Maybe you can paint something today? Or write something? Or go inside a dream and explore it? Try it.

What’s it all about?

The medical model would have us believe that treatment is all about placing into remission  or curing disease. We look at the problems with the medical model when used to look at problems in living, but that is for another day. Today a brief look at Individuation. I see therapy as being about assisting the process of individuation, of becoming ourselves. Individuation is a journey, not a destination, a goal which remains forever in front of us:

Individuation means becoming an “in-dividual,” and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” or “self-realization.” C.G. Jung

One of my favorite ways of describing individuation comes from Jolande Jacobi in her book, The Way of Individuation:

“Like a seed growing into a tree, life unfolds stage by stage. Triumphant ascent, collapse, crises, failures, and new beginnings strew the way. It is the path trodden by the great majority of mankind, as a rule unreflectingly, unconsciously, unsuspectingly, following its labyrinthine windings from birth to death in hope and longing. It is hedged about with struggle and suffering, joy and sorrow, guilt and error, and nowhere is there security from catastrophe. For as soon as a man tries to escape every risk and prefers to experience life only in his head, in the form of ideas and fantasies, as soon as he surrenders to opinions of ‘how it ought to be’ and, in order not to make a false step, imitates others whenever possible, he forfeits the chance of his own independent development. Only if he treads the path bravely and flings himself into life, fearing no struggle and no exertion and fighting shy of no experience, will he mature his personality more fully than the man who is ever trying to keep to the safe side of the road.”  

And isn’t that what it is all about — treading the path bravely and flings himself into life, fearing no struggle and no exertion and fighting shy of no experience? Though heaven knows, no insurance company will pay for that.

 

Getting bored? How about writing?

If you are at all like me — and I am very introverted — the charm of this quarantine/social distancing has long since worn off. In my restless search for variety I have increased the pile of books to be read, watched too many Netflix series and movies, and oh how the pile of knitting works in progress has grown. In the past I have talked about Personal Myth and the value of exploring one’s own. So how about looking more deeply into it and beginning the exploration of your own personal myth? 

Human beings are narrative makers. We remember ourselves and our lives in stories — stories we tell our friends, family, strangers, ourselves. When a new patient comes to me, I say “tell me about yourself” and await the story of this person’s life and how it has brought her to me. And if we work together for some time, that story will change so that the story she tells at the end will be recognizable as hers but different in some ways from the tale told at the beginning.

“The universe is made of stories – not atoms”  Muriel Rukeyser

So, we swim in a sea of stories — our own and those of the ones around us. And we shape our lives around the story we tell ourself is ours, the story that we live. Think of a person you no doubt know whose life could be summed up in the song title, “I would do anything for love” — can you begin to see the story he or she is living? And how might that person be able to change the course of the story, write a new chapter if only she knew it was what she is living?

“The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it….” Jules Renard 

Exploring personal myth is one way to discover the story. 

In the last 20 years or so, a plethora of books have been written on the subject of personal myth. Of the lot of them, 2 stand out for me as better than the rest:

James Pennebaker: Writing to Heal Pennebaker, a social psychologist, has done considerable work examining the healing potential of writing. You will find a paper describing his work here.

Sam Keen & Anne Valley Fox: Your Mythic Journey  this book encourages the reader, through writing and reflection using question drawn from the work of Joseph Campbell, to uncover his story and explore its meaning.

I am never entirely happy with self-help books. In order to appeal to a large audience, in my view, they lose bite in favor of what is palatable and likely to engage masses of readers, rather the same way that the food from Taco Bell is suggestive of Mexican food but lacks the complexity and range of real Mexican food. So think of these books as a way to do personal myth, lite. Digging into one’s life, looking at Shadow as well as Persona, takes time. Plus all of us are at best reluctant to look into the corners and under the rocks where our darker or less acceptable aspects lurk. That said, these books offer a palatable way to begin to look at personal myth and may whet appetite for looking deeper. But beware of a tendency to encourage inflation, to push to a perfect resolution.I

How are you doing?

The novelty of not going to work or out to eat is probably wearing off by now; I know it is for me. So the question becomes how do we take care of ourselves in stressful times like these.

Here are a few of things I have found useful and which I suggest to others:

• Meditate. It is in and of itself stress reducing. There are apps available to help you do it.

• Take time to write in your journal. Don’t have a journal? This is a good time to start one. Write about what you see and feel. Write your dreams.

• Walk. You can do this outdoors, provided you maintain that 6′ social distance. You can even do it in your home. 

• Give time to crafts that you enjoy. I am knitting a lot.

• Feel your feelings, whatever they are. Don’t try to hold it all in.

• Find your friends on social media and arrange a virtual get-together. Here’s a link to some tips to do that. https://www.thelily.com/8-tips-for-hosting-the-perfect-virtual-hangout/

*The photo at the top of this post is of the labyrinth which is a few hundred feet from my front door. 

Therapy Online

Regular readers here know that a portion of my practice consists of working with patients via telephone and FaceTime and Skype. In fact I have been working with people via telephone for more than fifteen years. This past week as efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, the need for social distancing crashed into the psychotherapy world. It is now the firm recommendation that all psychotherapy be done online or via telephone rather than face to face in person. This has created its own anxieties about what it is like to be in a session away from the therapist’s office. So let’s explore a little.

What is online therapy like?

Some years ago the New York Times published an article on what was then a strange new thing, Online Therapy. And published it in the Fashion and Style section, which might give you an idea of some problems they inadvertently come off as supporting.

When I agree to work with someone who does not wish to or cannot come to my office , I set the same basic frame that I have with people who meet me face to face. We meet at the same time each week, for a set fee, and I expect that as far as is humanly possible we will both be seated in the same place each time, I in my office and my patient in some place where she can expect to be uninterrupted and have privacy. The vessel for therapy conducted by telephone or Skype needs integrity just as that in more traditional settings does. I have often done sessions with my analyst via telephone. When I talked with him, I knew he was sitting in his office in the chair he uses for any session. He didn’t walk around or go off into the kitchen to get something. He was in the same place where I saw him when I was in the room with him. Similarly, each time I sat in the same chair in my house, in space that I knew was private and where I would not be interrupted.

So I was a bit put off by several things in the article like:

“She mixed herself a mojito, added a sprig of mint, put on her sunglasses and headed outside to her friend’s pool. Settling into a lounge chair, she tapped the Skype app on her phone.”

Really? A cocktail and a session by the pool? Is drinking alcohol during a session really a good idea? Does the therapist raise this issue? Does he even know? And what does it mean to do a session out of doors, the antithesis of a vessel, a contained space? Therapy isn’t just another social occasion.

Or this :

“There’s that comfort of carrying your doctor around with you like a security blanket. But because he’s more accessible, I feel like I need him less.”

I’m skeptical. There is even the suggestion that “The anxiety of shrink-less August could be, dare one say … curable?” implying that the pain of vacation breaks need not be felt, much less that working through it might actually be meaningful and helpful.

Different and yet the same

To my way of thinking, therapy via telephone or Skype differs from therapy face to face only in where it is conducted. The rest of the elements of therapy remain the same. My experience has taught me that it is not inferior to sitting in the same room with a patient, only different. Different in that I must rely more on what I hear  or what I see on my computer screen than I do in my office, where I have rich sensory cues as well. I have learned to listen to the rhythms of my patient’s speech — changes that come when more difficult material arises — changes in tone, volume, inflection. These cues too are rich but often paid less heed when we have all that visual material available. It is interesting to me that several people who started on the telephone with me, when we switched to Skype, after trying video Skype, opted for voice only. And some simply never want the video element in the first place and find talking on the telephone less inhibiting.

Some therapists will not feel comfortable working outside of the usual mode of patient coming to the office and they do well not to work this way. As a supervisor once told me, we practice what we believe, and it is important that the therapist be comfortable working in and with the differences that come from working online. Good therapy is good therapy no matter whether in person or via telephone and what makes for good therapy is the same regardless.

There is a Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, and we certainly are doing so. If you are feeling anxious and needing and wanting to talk with someone, this is a good time to seek a therapist if you do not already have one. I have openings now — reach me via the contact form on the Home page.

Living to Tell the Tale

An older human hand

A few years ago I taught a course at our Senior College called Conversations in the Third Act. Among other things we took photos of our hands, as hands show age in ways we cannot cover up as so many  try to do with the face. This photo is unmistakeable as one of an older person’s hand. It tells the tale of a life lived.

Living to Tell the Tale

The goal of all life, the end point, death, is what lies in front of us. In the third act of life it looms larger than it has before and is much more a part of consciousness. To be fully alive is to know that death lies ahead.

Between here and death, there is work to be done to deal with things left undone, to reconcile ourselves to our past, to seriously consider the story we have been living with an eye especially toward any changes we want to make in the remaining years.

A friend of mine, a woman in her mid-70’s wrestles with the conflict between the desire to do and the body that no longer wants to. And with the bubbling up of creative possibilities that she does not know she can bring to fruition. All of us in the third act are faced with having to prioritize in a new way, to come to terms with the certain knowledge that if there is something we want to do, want to create, we have to get down to work now because time is passing swiftly.

How to wrestle with these issues without succumbing to despair or melancholy and regret is a major concern. What does it mean to become old? What is old — 60? 70? 80? How do we come to terms with a body, a face that is not the face or body I carry in my mind’s eye of myself? How do we make sense of the story we have lived and consider how we want to live the last chapters?

Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams and Reflections:
“Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only “tell stories”. Whether or not the stories are “true” is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.”

The story of our lives is our myth. People in mid-life and later often enjoy looking back and spinning yarns about what we have experienced. One thing to keep in mind is that myths tell not so much about the literal part of our lives but how we experience events internally, our perceptions and emotional reactions. These reactions can be radically different from what one might expect based solely on what actually takes place.

Stories are how our ancestors wove the fabric of meaning and existence as they made their way in their lives. Human beings are myth makers, story tellers. We remember ourselves and our lives in stories — stories we tell our friends, family, strangers, ourselves. When someone asks you, “What happened?”,  you construct a story to relay your experience. Memory crystallizes into story.  This is how we attempt not only to portray ourselves in our lives but also to find meaning. Meaning, or the search for it, has always been at the basis of story. Telling stories is the most human of all acts. Exploring our life story not only provides meaning, but also constitutes a celebration of our lives.

Writing your life story is one way of exploring the meaning of your life and an important one. Another is through depth psychotherapy.

 “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brené Brown

Dream a little dream…

It looks like I will be teaching a short course on Understanding Your Dreams in the spring at the Belfast Senior College here where I live. And I plan to offer an online dream group later in the spring — stay tuned for news about that. Given that, I thought maybe a small introduction to understanding dreams would whet your appetite.

Jung tells us:

After the parting of the ways with Freud, a period of inner uncertainty began for me. … I felt it necessary to develop a new attitude toward my patients. I resolved for the present not to bring any theoretical premises to bear upon them, but to wait and see what they would tell of their own accord. My aim became to leave things to chance. The result was that the patients would spontaneously report their dreams and fantasies to me, and I would merely ask, ‘What occurs to you in connection with that?’ or, ‘How do you mean that, where does that come from, what do you think about it?’ The interpretations seemed to follow of their own accord from the patients’ replies and associations. I avoided all theoretical points of view and simply helped the patients to understand the dream-images by themselves, without application of rules and theories. Soon I realized that it was right to take the dreams in this way as the basis of interpretation, for that is how dreams are intended. They are the facts from which we must proceed.” (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections Pp. 170-71)

It is very difficult for some of my patients to get it that I am not the expert on their dreams, that I have no magic wand to wave to magically reveal all that the dream contains. That they themselves are the experts for their dreams is a tough concept as many of them are so used to looking to experts for answers. But this is exactly what I like most about Jungian dream analysis, that we start from the patient and not from the theory. 

So forget about your books of dream symbols and just be with your dreams. Ask yourself the questions Jung asks in the quote above. Let the dream talk to you. And if you must have a book to help you, here are 2 that may give you some ideas:

Inner Work by Robert Johnson

The Art of Dreaming: Tools for Creative Dream Work  by Jill Mellick

Neither of them will tell you what your dreams mean, but they will give you some tools for understanding them better.

Wanting to be wanted

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. 

She observes

“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)

Sound familiar?

 

Do you have to want to change?

Remember this joke?

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.