Hammer Meet Nail


Photo by the author; line drawing by J.C. Barberis

Today was my fourth session with a new therapist. Mostly I told her about my job and what I don’t like about it. She wanted to talk about the origin of my feelings of anger toward my boss and the insecurities I feel at work. What is the original experience being triggered when seemingly unbearable feelings of vulnerability and humiliation arise in relation to a capricious superior? I’m an adult child of an alcoholic. I know the origin of these feelings.

There’s a line in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt spoken by Tina Fey’s character, a psychiatrist talking about her own alcoholism, to the effect that, “It’s called compartmentalizing, and it’s not a problem, because I know the words to describe it.” I know many big words to describe my mental experiences, patterns, and hang-ups. Few or none of these words have been helpful in claiming my agency and accountability as a whole person.

In my experience, there are definite limits to the usefulness of psychodynamic talk therapy. I know that I get homicidal and hopeless when my boss speaks to me a certain way because my father installed the buttons being pushed. Knowing this does not help me. Rehashing the origins of these feelings does not alleviate them. Sinking back into emotions I felt as a child does not temper or help me manage these same emotions when they turn up uninvited in the present.

I’m a defender of Freud. I have a portrait of him in my home. What I’ve read of his work I’ve found fascinating. But there’s a reason he’s taken more seriously by literary critics than modern psychologists. He is super interested in the formation of our psychic landscapes. In my understanding, his approach to therapy is about uncovering the impulses we unconsciously abide by, and understanding the connections between our past and present experiences. The case studies I’ve read feel novelistic—more voyeuristic than empathetic or hopeful.

Today, psychodynamic therapists revive his theories and excise his name; the intent is to resolve internal conflicts by identifying underlying tensions or conflicting impulses. I worked with a psychodynamic therapist for two years at one time, and rarely found hope there. Revisiting that approach today left me feeling violated. I can see how this approach could be helpful to someone who has spent minimal time exploring their mind and motives. But for me, someone struggling with daily hopelessness, thoughts of suicide, a decade plus of therapy under my belt, and barely going through the motions of daily life, asking, “What is the origin of these feelings?” seems about as helpful as asking someone with a severe gunshot wound, “Why do you think he shot you?”

I can’t afford to quit this therapist. I need to keep my job, I need to keep my sanity. I need a sounding board and I need to feel some sense of hope. I will have to tell this new therapist how looking for answers in the past feels for me.

It’s hard to ask for what I want in therapy. Not because I’m afraid to speak up, but because I feel sure the therapist won’t be able to provide it. It’s like asking your lover what you want in bed. It can be sexy and exciting if you feel confident they are able and willing to meet your needs. But you never want to say, “Could you just be 6 inches taller and make me love you again?”


Photo by Adam Sherez on Unsplash

Therapists are only human, and if they have a hammer, you better pray you’re a nail. But if, like me, you’re a screw, it’s easy to feel screwed. What am I looking for in therapy? From a therapist? I have had one categorically great experience in therapy, and I want to feel gratitude for that. But with the loss of that therapist still fresh, what made that experience so productive now feels indefinable, elusive, and the memory of it seems to fade daily. I have to remind myself that I have the tools I need, and more than anything, my challenge is to feel confident enough to use them.