Over the years, I have noticed that the mere mention of the word “psychoanalysis” strikes fear in the hearts of many. It is equivalent to Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort–it is the profession whose name shall not be spoken!
I am reminded of this idea whenever I attend a dinner party with new people. Inevitably, the dreaded question is asked of me…”so what do you do for a living?” I gulp. I look for an escape route. I wish I were a teacher, or a television editor, or a software engineer, or even an IRS agent. Because I know how intimidated people feel about psychotherapists–and psychoanalysts in particular. They have fantasies that we have x-ray vision and can see the deepest, darkest secrets of their minds. They expect harsh judgment and a kind of detached superiority from us. They wonder if we are always psychoanalyzing everyone in the room.
So, in the face of the question, I try to smile and come across as casually as possible. “I’m a head-shrinker,” I say. It’s the least intimidating way I know how to describe it. They usually laugh. A good sign. They usually give me a chance. Another good sign. And then after awhile, as they get to know me, they get a chance to see that while, yes, I may have special powers, I’m just an ordinary human being, too!
While these anxieties are dispelled a bit through experiences such as these, it is important to admit there is some basis in reality for them. Intuitively, we know that psychoanalysis is a model for thinking about people that is deep and insightful. We feel kind of vulnerable in the presence of someone who is listening so intently, thinking so carefully, and wholly dedicated to understanding our inner world. When we feel vulnerable like that, we try to protect ourselves. We become suspicious. Maybe even defensive. It’s natural. We worry that we are going to be harmed in some way–that the powerful insights of psychoanalysis and the skills of its agents will be used against us. Because of its presumed power, we assume that psychoanalysis is a dark art. Better to keep it at a distance. Better safe than sorry.
If things go reasonably well by the end of such dinner parties, my new-found friends often express their farewells by saying, “It was so nice to meet you. You’re so easy to talk to.” I might respond with a wink and a smile and say, “See, I told you that I try to use my powers for good and not evil!” I hope that experiences like these are corrective for people, giving them a chance to challenge their stereotypes and have a positive experience with a real, live, decent psychoanalyst. My profession sometimes has a bad reputation, and I hope to help restore its good name.
This is the way that I approach my work with patients in my private practice, as well. I hope that they, too, will find in me a person who is interested in using whatever talents, education, and training I have for their good. That is the motive from which psychoanalysis emerged, even as far back as Freud’s day when he was trying to treat patients who were not responding well to other treatments available at the time. He wanted to reach the unreachable, to grasp the deeper meaning of their symptoms in order to give them relief. Psychoanalysis is a theory of how the mind works, yes; but it is fundamentally a clinical technique designed to help people change for the better.
In my experience on both sides of the couch–as patient and analyst–I have discovered that psychoanalysis is not dark magic, as even I had once feared. In fact, it is not magic at all. What analysts “shrink” are these very illusions–the illusions that there is some magical, powerful way to be in the world that allows us to transcend ordinary human struggles and life. Analysis fundamentally embraces the idea that life is hard work. Good work but hard work. Psychoanalysis can feel magical, in the sense that it taps into the unconscious which can seem so mysterious. But the unconscious is just one part of being human–the part that is hardest to reach and most difficult to understand, but still just an ordinary part of who we all are. As I hope to show in future posts, psychoanalysis is indeed one of the most penetrating, insightful, and useful models for understanding the psyche and making meaningful and lasting changes in life. But it isn’t magic. And it doesn’t bite. It’s just psychoanalysis!