Psychoanalysts are experts in understanding. This may not seem special until you realize that other therapists think they’re experts in what you should think or do. You might think you like the idea of being told what you should think or do, but wait! These so-called experts only end up saying stuff you knew anyway:
“I don’t feel like getting up for work.” “Try going go to bed earlier.”
“I resent my boyfriend.” “You could look around for someone else.”
“I’m anxious all the time.” “Take a deep breath and try to relax.”
This is just ordinary thinking jazzed up to sound special in a therapist’s office. It’s the “Drink Milk” approach. It’s your grandmother’s thinking camouflaged as therapy. I’m not against grandmothers, your grandmother was right about a lot of things. The point is that you already know what she had to say, so if she helped your situation you wouldn’t need a therapist and wouldn’t be reading this in the first place. American mental health is based on “deviations from the norm.” Its treatment models aim to get you to think and act more like the average. This model is rarely helpful, mostly rubbish, and possibly dangerous to your personal and individual health. This isn’t the psychoanalytic approach.
Psychoanalysis aims to understand you personally, what you’re anxious about, what this anxiety signal is telling you about you. Inner messengers have enormous value. They’re not supposed to be “fixed” or dismissed before letting them speak. A psychiatrist might want to give you a pill to make the anxiety signal go away. Ye gods, the worst possible treatment! If a red light shows up on the dashboard of your car, you could get rid of it by unscrewing the bulb—but silencing this messenger makes no sense, it makes things worse. So if you think you want a therapist to tell you what to do, think again. No one can tell you anything until they’ve truly understood you. It doesn’t matter if they think they understand statistical norms. All that matters is understanding you.
What is this thing called…autonomy?
It means you don’t have to fit anyone else’s model, not even in a therapist’s textbook. The goal of psychoanalytic treatment is freedom to be the person you choose. It means freedom from the 5 prisons of internal and external coersion:
(1) Freedom from useless rules.
“Eat your spinach.” No doubt there are a few life-enhancing rules, like stopping at a traffic light, but most people live by unexamined rules that are incorrect. “The majority is right.” Historically false. “Never start a fight.” If not, you’ll be unprepared when others do. “Don’t try to get your own way.” Yet someone is going to get their own way, so why not you? “Always give 100%.” Bad strategy because you’ll be too tired when it really counts. “Clean your plate.” No, this will just make you fat.
(2) Freedom from useless fears.
“A mistake will wreck your life.” No, mistakes never make much difference in the long run. “Your biggest loss is your good reputation”.Actually, no one’s paying that much attention to you. “You could wake up one day without a job.” Yeah, ‘could happen, since life is full of twists and turns—but this worrying is useless so you might as well skip it, first because fear doesn’t change anything, second because no matter what happens you will respond when it happens. Hey, what if you were caught on the ocean in a hurricane? Worrying about this in advance is bogus because your mind can only go in circles and spark useless fears. It just so happens that I actually was caught on the ocean in a hurricane—on a 26’ sailboat. We were scared at first but what actually happened was completely unpredictable: We ended up laughing as we fought the wind and waves, then in the middle of the storm we had sex. I couldn’t know this would happen in advance. If it ever happened again, the outcome would be different. I couldn’t predict the first time, so I can’t predict the next time. The mind can’t process a hypothetical instance that isn’t happening and might never happen. Fear contributes no insight into what actually happens in any real-life moment—so fear is useless.
(3) Freedom from bogus authorities:
Those of us who had childhoods needed our parents, loved them, and believed they knew. Q: Knew what? A: Well, they just knew!This primal belief fuels the lifelong fear that others “really know,” but “I don’t.” It organizes life around believing teachers, preachers, police, government authorities, and even therapists. It can cause inner paralysis. Instead of living your life to the fullest, you wait for “guidance.” There isn’t much. I’m not saying there’s none—let’s say 20%. But how do you know which authority is right? Sitting in the dentist’s chair with tubes and nozzles in my mouth, my dentist says, “Get out of the market, sell everything, it’s all going to crash.” Here is someone with a degree telling me he knows, and he’s telling me in a moment when I feel vulnerable and childlike. This actually occurred—in 2009. In other words he was totally wrong, creating bogus fear at the bottom of the market, just before the DOW doubled. Authorities may be right about little things (e.g., parking regulations; dentistry) but they’re usually ignorant about the things in life that matter. The residue of the child’s mind within uswants an authority. The child wants to believe someone really knows, so we’re willing to be afraid or in awe of authorities because, without them, we’d have to guide our own lives—which is the most unwelcome part of all. A psychoanalyst can help you work through these primal fears, wishes, and beliefs. Therapists who think they know how to guide you are falling into the trap of acting like the bogus authority who really knows, thereby recreating the very problem therapy was supposed to solve.
(4) Freedom to make your mark on the world:
Here’s a valid definition of authority: The group has the power to enforce its laws and views, irrespective of whether they’re right, fair, or even sensible. The group cares about it’s own survival and well-being. The group will never risk these by standing up for individual rights and principles. Creative mavericks among us may be killed (e.g., Michael Servetus) or venerated (e.g., Albert Schweitzer). The group may accept or reject them, but the group will never commit to protect the stranger. The only exception is Judaism. Sometimes Christianity. Judaism considers protecting the dignity of the stranger primal, while the majority’s views are secondary. The Supreme Court used to be the last bastion of protection for the rights of the minority, but the Roberts’ Supreme Court doesn’t understand this. Scalia never met a stranger he didn’t vote against.
That said, the task of living an adult live includes (a) picking your battles, i.e., accepting which aspects of group power can’t be changed, while (b) feeling free and energized to change the part of the world you can touch. I consider the majority on the Roberts’ Court ethically bankrupt but they won’t engage me in debating this, so I have no access to the battleground. It’s an example of group power I must accept. I must abide by their rulings, no matter how odious, no matter how unethical. The group will never diminish its power on behalf of any individual, no matter how righteous. The true leaders and saints of our era are Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Even so, they only prevailed because the majority eventually backed them. If they’d been only lone ethical voices crying in the wilderness, Scalia would have crushed them.
I’m not in the league of leaders and saints. Yet psychoanalysis helped me to shed my earlier timid self-image. After psychoanalysis, during my presidency of the Training Institute of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, I succeeded in automating an antiquated administration and survived all the the criticism. At Union Theological Seminary I smuggled a practical approach to pastoral counseling into the curriculum, instead of their usual ethereal courses that don’t touch the real world. When I couldn’t find an adequate textbook for my pastoral counseling students, I created it myself (“The Guide to Pastoral Counseling and Care”). My forensic work has helped dozens of mentally ill inmates receive treatment instead of irrelevant punishment. I couldn’t find the right small country house, so I built it myself. My hypnosis work has freed hundreds of patients from the prisons of smoking, drinking, phobias, and harmful habits. I am known in corporate America as the “go to” guy who will work with the most difficult and dangerous cases other professionals are afraid of and won’t touch. I could go on, but this isn’t about blowing my own horn; it’s about the importance of psychoanalysis when it comes to creating the freedom and energy to make your mark on whatever part of the world you can touch.
(5) Freedom to be happy: It’s false to think you’ll be happy once you’ve solved your problems. It’s false to think you’ll be happy when you reach milestones like graduation, promotion, or retirement. No, happiness in life must be pursued and cultivated on its own, or else it’ll never happen. Psychoanalysis enables you get rid of major obstacles to happiness. It unmasks false ideologies, such as the notion that you should care more about children in China than your own happiness, that God wants you to suffer for your betterment, or that God will retaliate if ever you openly claim to be happy. Neurosis allows you to struggle toward happiness, but then it strikes you down with guilt and anxiety if you ever claim to achieve it.
So psychoanalysis first removes prohibitions against happiness, then it enables you to actively pursue it. It enables you to choose without guilt to play tennis before you’ve read the NY Times. It enables you to use your credit card for a special scarf or tie—while skipping the notion that you’re not being responsible. It allows you to sit quietly and listen to music, even though there are bills waiting on your desk. Your enjoyment of your spouse zooms because you’ve been freed from equating happiness with perfection. It enables you to enjoy a baseball game, or a mani-pedi, or riding a motorcycle. It lets you buy a piece of art, even though you also need to replace pots & pans. You enjoy opening your wallet to give money to the needy, because you’ve evolved beyond worrying about yourself and are truly happy to contribute to the good of others. This deep level of happiness will never happen naturally. You need to cultivate it. That’s what psychoanalysis is all about.
How to Choose a Therapist
You can’t go wrong by asking for a referral from someone certified in psychoanalysis, not just licensed in the mental health field, but someone displaying on their wall a certificate with a seal that says “Psychotherapy” or “Psychoanalysis.” This doesn’t mean they’ll be your therapist. If you know them well, or if the two of you have close mutual friends, a sign of their professionalism is that they won’t agree to be your therapist. Instead, they’ll draw on their professional network to recommend someone suitable for your situation. If you ask me for a recommendation, I’ll talk it over with you and then give you a single name, because I believe confusion is created if I recommend 3 therapists at once. You’re always free to come back to me for another name if things don’t seem to click. Other therapists have been taught to give 3 names on purpose in order to cover themselves against legal responsibility if things don’t click. I mention this so you’ll understand that the difference between receiving 1 vs 3 names is only about legal opinions. It doesn’t mean that one recommendation is only 1/3 as good as three. If you want to know more about why I consider 3 names worse than 1, write me. I’m here.
There are 2 or 3 people you admire as occupying a special place in your heart. Call them and ask for their thoughts about finding a therapist. Don’t worry that they’ll think you’re crazy. Right away they’ll welcome your call and delve right into the search. They’ve had therapy experience. It might have involved themselves, their children, parents, or colleagues, but they kept it quiet until you asked. They’ll be candid in telling you avenues that turned out to be lousy. They’ll agree about a competent therapist. Even more important, they’ll check with 2 or 3 more friends. Out of this will come a solid network of therapists to call, and therapists to avoid.
You can ask religious leaders, provided you follow 2 groundrules: (a) They must assure you they have vetted this therapist face-to-face and are not just giving you a ringer, or passing on a name they got in the mail—which happens with clergy all the time. (b) You must chat informally to make sure your religious leader is savvy about therapy, and as you chat you’ll be able to tell if they truly understand issues of training, credentials, personal therapy, and confidentiality—or not. Clergy who are lost and making it up probably had no chance to learn what clinical work is all about. You can accept a recommendation from savvy clergy but Beware: The clergy aren’t responsible for helping you. It’s your responsibility not to follow bogus recommendations from clergy who have no idea what they’re advising you. If you swallow a religious bait line and things go wrong, no one will cry for you since it’s your responsibility not to fall for nonsense from clergy in the first place. These days the whole world has awakened to how untrustable the clergy are.
How Not to Choose a Therapist
see psychotherapists on an insurance company’s panel. They have a contract with the company and must report to an administrator you don’t know and who doesn’t know you. Inexperienced therapists who need money will put up with this. They are underpaid and have to wait 4-6 months for the company’s check. They’ll exit the panel as soon as they mature. So don’t see therapists on insurance panels. They’re treated so badly by the insurance company that they’re in conflict over helping you vs. resenting you. It’s never good. Don’t do it. Get Away.
expect good therapists to be on your insurance panel. Don’t complain when they’re not. This problem lands on your own doorstep because you let your employer get away with a lousy policy. Therapists had nothing to do with it. Your employer should pay you properly by issuing you a policy with meaningful out-of-network benefits.
see a therapist recommended by your family physician. They mean well, but they have such narrow training that they don’t know much, except to refer to psychiatrists, i.e., experts in biochemistry with no understanding of interpersonal, social, and psychological issues. Psychiatry is OK if you’re seeking help with psychosis, where medication is essential. It’s OK if your nephew thinks he’s receiving signals from the Beatles or your aunt feels spiders crawling up her leg. In such situations, medication can truly stabalize patients and enable them to have a basic life instead of being in and out of hospitals. But psychiatry doesn’t help where problems in living are concerned, such as vocational uncertainty, ambivalence after a divorce, job conflict, or inner torment over a checkered love affair. Beware: Psychiatrists tend to be kinda’ simplistic and useless in real-life problems. Very few of the life problems that beset us are biochemical. You’ll need a psychoanalyst.