The Freudian Mystique is culturally pervasive. People come to therapy hoping to find that dramatic flash of insight: “That’s it! The reason I bite my fingernails is to compensate for my mother’s ‘rejecting, withholding breast,’ at which I did not have a nurturing experience!”
People believe deeply that psychoanalytic insight will provide immense relief to them. People believe that psychoanalytic insight will prompt, evoke, or even spontaneously cause change.
And, while sometimes true, neither belief is necessarily true. Insight is an oversold commodity. Sometimes a flat “bill of goods.” Often frustrating at best. Okay, so now we know-that-we-know (as if we could ever know) that you bite your fingernails because breastfeeding didn’t go so well between you and your mother. All righty then. What exactly is the victory in knowing that? And does it necessarily add or subtract one thing in your efforts to stop biting your nails? I doubt it.
People come to therapy looking for insight. And they tend to have expectations that the therapist is The Keeper of The Insights. First order of business for me with a lot of new patients? Dodge, debunk, demystify and otherwise disappoint these expectations!
Like the guy who comes to therapy with his wife after having been discovered in a fourth affair. He’s a serial cheater. She weeps. “I don’t know why I keep doing this,” he says – sincere, poignant, plaintive, miserable, helpless. He is looking for insight from me, the Keeper of The Insights. So, I put on my “furrowed brow, thinking hard” face. Then I lift my brow, shrug, put on my “oh well, shot in the dark” face and say, “My teachers said, ‘Always start with the simplest explanation, and go from there.’”
“What do you mean, simplest explanation,” he asks, taking the bait.
“Uh … you really, really enjoy extramarital affairs? They are a total ego-rush for you. Not just the secret, forbidden sex. But the whole cat-and-mouse, juggling identities thing. Affairs are a lot of fun for you.”
The pregnant, astonished pause tells me we’re making good progress.
Or the guy who uses a vile, misogynistic slur to degrade his wife. It rends her soul. Tears her heart to pieces. He sits on the couch in couples counseling, like a man having a religious experience, watching her cry, rail, beg and plead for him to stop. Like a torture victim begging her torturer for mercy.
He’s stunned. “I don’t know why I do that,” he says. He turns to me. “Why do I do that? It doesn’t make any sense. I love her. Why do I talk to her like that?”
See, there it is again. The Freudian Mystique. This guy, in this moment, thinks the most pressing issue is to find an explanation – a psychoanalytic explanation – of why and how he can at once love someone and call that someone a [expletive].
Again, I shrug my shoulders, palms turned upward, empty handed. “I suppose we could tackle that question,” I say. “Spend the next 12-18 sessions digging in to your childhood, your relationship with your mother, early bonding experiences, gender identity … and maybe we could find an answer to your question. I’m certainly willing to try. But there’s something else we might want to try first.”
“What’s that,” he asks.
“In school, we nicknamed it Nike Therapy,” I explain. “As in, Just Do It.”
“I don’t understand,” he says.
“You could decide the answer to your question is not the most pressing matter at hand. That you might never be able to explain it, and that you don’t need to explain it. That you don’t have the luxury of six month’s navel-gazing before you change this behavior. You could decide that, by the time you find the answer to your question, if you ever do find the answer, your wife will be long gone. You’re only real victory, I guess, is that you’ll be able to ‘explain’ your divorce.”
“You’re saying something needs to change right now,” he says, nodding.
“If you’re marriage matters to you, yes,” I say. “So, you could Just Do It.”
“Do what,” he asks.
Again I shrug, “You could just decide that it is simply beneath you, as a man, to ever, ever again speak to someone you love like that. For any reason. Ever again.”
The pregnant, astonished pause tells me we’re making progress.
Yes, psychoanalytic insight is sometimes useful. Sometimes a golden key unlocking freedom and change.
But, when your house in on fire … or your life is on fire … or your marriage is on fire … psychoanalytic investigations might well be moot. A rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.
First things first: Put out the fire!
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)