Docsplainin' -- it's what I do

Docsplainin'--it's what I do.
After all, I'm a doc, aren't I?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Please Hold While I Connect Your Call

We had a spirited discussion in supervision last week about what it is exactly that we as therapists do for our patients. Job #1, as I see it, is to make connections.

Our clients are invariably suffering from some form of alienation. Perhaps they are alienated from their feelings: They don't know what they feel. Or they don't know why they feel it. Perhaps they are alienated from their selves: They don't know who they are, or what they want. They don't know why they do the things they do. They see-saw back and forth between contradictory wants, thoughts, feelings, actions, and self-images. Or they might be alienated from others: They can't maintain a relationship.

So what we do is we help them
re-connect to alienated, denied, repressed, suppressed, split-off, and projected parts of themselves.

If people are alienated from their feelings, we help them get back in touch with them.
Some people are all in their heads, some have split off their feelings and either projected them onto someone else or created alter personalities to handle them. Still others drink and drug to numb their feelings. Some just deny that they have any, and hope that will make it so. Women in my practice are frequently (if not usually) especially alienated from their anger. We might help them make the connection between their abuse of alcohol and drugs and their wish to avoid feeling angry. Or their wish to reduce inhibitions to the point that they can let loose some anger. We help them re-own anger they have split off and projected, be it onto another person or into another personality. We help them look at patterns in their lives and what their anger might mean in response to people, places, and things. Maybe we help them learn to use their anger as valuable information, as signals.

Which brings us to power. Most of my clients are no more or less powerful than the next person. But women in particular tend to believe they are powerless: They have become alienated from their own strength, usually by the same social process that alienated them from their anger. Therapy, therefore, may involve getting women to exercise that particular muscle as well.

Other people are alienated from their reason and ruled by their feelings. These folk need to be re-connected to their rational sides. We can do that, too. Therapy is a whole lot more than getting in touch with your feelings.

Some folk have become alienated from their very selves: Their parents split off experiences that would otherwise be intolerable and projected them onto the patient. Or tried to live vicariously through the patient. Instead of mirroring for the child what the child is actually like, these parents' eyes are as inaccurate as funhouse mirrors: No child looking into them all day ever day is going to grow up with a realistic self-image. Therapists, if we are doing our jobs, help clients look at themselves with their own eyes (through ours) and begin to see themselves as they actually are. They learn what they really want, not what somebody else has been telling them all their lives what they should want. We reconnect them with their own opinions.

And we reconnect them with their voices. Perhaps a child has been told all his life that what he has to say isn't important, or is incorrect, or must not be spoken of at all. This child, as an adult, is alienated from her own voice. We help her re-learn to speak her piece, often by simply listening objectively, without judging her or injecting our own points of view.

As a psychodynamic therapist, of course, I thrive on making connections between peoples' pasts and their presents. Why do they do what they do? Where did they learn that? What impulse/fantasy/wish/fear are they acting out? Where are its roots in the distant past? How does what goes on in the therapy session connect with how they conduct (or fail to conduct) themselves in their "outside" relationships?

The list of possible connections is endless. What is alienated and needs to be brought back into self-awareness varies with each client. Our job is to help them ask the right questions, observe themselves, analyze the data. We listen. We observe. We make connections.

So that's what therapists do. We are the telephone operators of the psyche.

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