Category Archives: Recent posts

We’re All Babies At Heart our minds are so complex, psychoanalysts often use metaphors and analogies to try to describe them.  Freud described the mind as being layered like the topography of the earth—the conscious tip of the glacier is above the water’s surface, and there is a deep unconscious beneath.  He also likened the psyche to a horse being bridled by a rider—the id (horse) needing to be mastered by the superego (bridle) in the hands of an effective ego (rider).  Indeed, it feels that way sometimes.  I sure know what it’s like to try to rein my impulses in!

For me, the analogy that has helped me best make sense of the life of the mind is Melanie Klein’s picture of the psychological world being like an internal family with a baby at the center of the action.  Having worked with both young children and adults, Klein observed that we human beings tend to carry the impulses, feelings, and fantasies of our babyhoods with us into later life.   She believed that, as adults, we all are under a lot of pressure from an internal baby part of ourselves that is frightened, confused, and in great need of help to figure out how to make it in this big, scary world of ours—a baby who longs for consolation, comfort, protection, safety, and ultimately love.  The internal baby needs us to develop more mature parts of the mind—an internal mom and dad, if you will—so that there is a more grown-up someone inside to help the baby deal with life.

This analogy explains a lot for me.  If I think about my difficulty getting out of bed when the alarm clock goes off in the morning as being like my inner baby’s wish to avoid the painful challenges of the day, I actually feel a little bit more compassionate toward myself—and am capable of having a bit more discipline, too.  I can see how I need an internal mother or father who firmly but kindly says, “Come on, time to get up.  It won’t be so bad.  You’ll feel better once you wipe the sleepy dust from your eyes.  It’ll be okay.”  And so the baby-me reluctantly gets up and gets going, and soon feels more awake and capable thanks to the inner parent’s nudging.

In my last post, I wrote about how challenging it is to accept reality as it is—and also how helpful it can be.  This week, I hope to get you thinking about this idea through the lens of the internal baby-internal mother analogy.  That picture helps me when I think about having to face a lot of things in reality that I don’t want to face—things far more difficult than getting up in the morning.  Things like dealing with conflict, standing up for what I think is right, tolerating unfairness, being patient in the face of hardship, leaning into emotionally painful experiences, weathering periods of helplessness, taking my medicine when I need it, biting my tongue, or swallowing humble pie.

We all need an internal mom or dad who can help us face difficulties in life.  For me, that is a picture of maturity—not the absence of childlike feelings and fantasies, but the ability to cope with them effectively.  Maturity comes when the internal mom can say to the internal baby, “It is what it is.  It’s not perfect but it’s not so bad.  And even when it is bad, you can face it.  I’ll help you.  We’ll do it together.”   For me, that’s a pretty good picture of maturity—compassionate discipline towards oneself.

We hope for this kind of dynamic between parents and children in external life.  Parents help children develop, teachers help students learn, psychoanalysts help patients grow.  The work is to take these helpful outside experiences with others and set them up inside as a relationship with ourselves.  Part of the wisdom of psychoanalysis is that, just as external experiences help shape our inner worlds, so internal experiences help shape our outer worlds.  If we can develop a good relationship between our baby-selves and adult-selves in our inner worlds, we carry that to our outer lives as we are more able to learn through experience, become stronger, reach further, and develop our potential.

Put simply, a well-functioning internal family means more success in life, as the inner parent turns to the inner child and says—with a smile but in all seriousness–“Put on your big girl panties, and deal with it!”

The Challenge To Accept Reality

It is what it is

In October every year, I begin receiving a plethora of catalogues in the mail.  Christmas is approaching and the gift purchasing season has arrived!  Because I once ordered a throw pillow embroidered with some cute saying, now I receive twenty different gift catalogues every week.  These are the catalogues with funny t-shirts, coffee mugs, front door mats, candles, jewelry, and the like.

These catalogues drive me a little crazy, but I do like to look through them.   This year, I discovered something interesting.  I discovered that there is a saying that seems to catch hold of the market—a different saying every year.   There are funny sayings like, I love cooking with wine; sometimes I even put it in the food or Jesus loves you but I’m his favorite or I’m so busy I don’t know if I found a rope or lost a horse!  They do make me chuckle.  There was one by Einstein this year, If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called Research. Now that one made me smile!

And then there are the sayings that tend more toward the sentimental and the profound.  We may not have it all together; but together we have it all or Never, never, never give up or Sisters are forever friends.  This past year, I noticed a new saying popping up in all the catalogues, available on a plaque, bracelet, throw pillow, or, as you can see, a coffee mug!  It really caught my attention because I had been thinking a lot about the wisdom that it captures so succinctly.

It is what it is. This saying reflects one of the central tasks of life:  to accept reality as it is.  In getting to know the intricate inner workings of the minds of many people, I have observed that this task is much harder than it may seem at first blush.  We human beings have tremendous resistance toward facing life on life’s terms.  It’s like psychic gravity pulls us toward dreaming about what life could be or holding grudges because we believe that life is not as it should be.  We don’t want to take it as it comes.  We tend to envy other people and compare ourselves to them.  But the comparison is usually a false one.  The grass is always greener in someone else’s yard because we compare the worst of what we have with the best of what our neighbors have.

I think this mindset is very seductive and proves to be a fundamental obstacle in our efforts to change and grow ourselves.  This is true for two reasons, one practical and the other deeply emotional.

The practical challenge for every one of us is to look at our lives and say to ourselves, “It is what it is.  This is my personality.  This is my raw material.  This is the life I’ve been given—the intellect, the body, the particular sensitivities, the strengths and weaknesses, the parents, the siblings, the children, the culture, the upbringing.  This is my history—what I have been given and what I have done with it.  I can wish for a different life, but I cannot have it.  This is it.”  I call this practical because if we can accept our lives as they are, we can work with what we’ve got.  If we can’t, then we have nothing to work with at all.   We’re just chasing the wind.

The deeply emotional challenge for every one of us is to love the lives we’ve been given.   This is difficult for us to do, too, but it is of the utmost importance.  When we do not accept the reality of our lives, we are motivated by hatred.  That is a strong way to put it, I know, but think about it.  If we look at our lives and say, “I don’t want it.  It’s no good.  It’s not enough.” then we are rejecting it in hatred.  Life is a gift and we say, “Take it back.  I want something better.”  Self-hatred and rejection are utterly toxic to mental health and peace of mind.  This is why I think of acceptance as a loving act toward ourselves and toward life itself.  We say, “I embrace it.  I will love it.  I will tend to it.  I will build on it.”  This state of mind leads to inner harmony, which is of value beyond measure.

We often resist this process because, at some level, accepting reality feels a lot like giving up.  There is some truth to that feeling.  Acceptance is a kind of resignation.  A kind of surrender.  But it is the good kind, the kind that can lead to change and growth.  What we give up is the ideal.  We give up a fantasy.  We let go of resentment.  We let go of grievances.  Perhaps you can see that it is not only loss; it is also gain.  In exchange, we get reality.  We get ourselves.

If we can do the hard emotional work of taking the good with the bad in life, we get to receive the gift that we have been given.  We might even get to enjoy it.

What Really Counts

I think Albert Einstein would have made a great psychoanalyst.  He just seems to have all the best quotes.  In my last post, I explored his idea that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”  Now I want to delve into another saying attributed to Einstein, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Being new to the blogging world, I started off by doing a little research.  I googled “best psychology blogs.”  Turns out, there are a lot of them—and a lot of good ones.   I found it interesting, though, that the psychology blogs at the top of the list have a lot to do with research psychology.  It made sense to me because there is a clear trend in my field toward a more scientifically-based psychology.  For example, there is a fascination these days with the function of the brain and how it affects our emotions and behavior.  Likewise, we seem to be enamored with scientific research; we believe things really matter if they can be measured in a laboratory.   Even within my own field of applied psychology, there is a strong movement toward “evidence-based treatments.”  A particular set of psychotherapeutic techniques is applied to a person with a particular symptom, and we measure whether or not the treatment “works” by whether or not the symptom is alleviated—and how much so and for how long.

Surely there is a place for such psychological science, but I fear that it is taking up nearly all of the space these days.   We overvalue measuring, counting, proving, and guaranteeing.  And so much that makes for a meaningful life cannot be quantified in such ways.

So I am heartened that one of the greatest scientists of all time said that counting is not everything.  Einstein understood that there are mysteries, that there is beauty, that there is meaning that transcends correlation and calculation.  This is true for so many aspects of life and especially for a depth psychology such as psychoanalysis.   While there is a growing body of research that demonstrates the effectiveness of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, its effect and value cannot be captured within the confines of the scientific method.

I turn to a poet to help me convey what I mean—to Rainer Maria Rilke who wrote, “Ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another.”

An effective psychotherapy treatment is a mysterious and sacred set of experiences between two human beings, dedicated to understanding the unique life of a single person in all of its complexities.  It is both science and art, aimed not only at reduction of symptoms but at lifting unconscious resistances so that we can face life on life’s terms and become our best selves.  The process of psychotherapy is difficult to measure because the things that matter most in life are difficult to measure.  Yes, we want to be free of the worst of our anxiety, depression, addiction, and dysfunction.  Yes, we wish to be more successful by having lasting marriages, good salaries and grade point averages, and high self-esteem as measured on a scale of 1 to 10.  But what of love?  Or joy?  Or gratitude?  Self-respect, self-control, generosity, hope, or, dare I say, peace of mind?   These are the things that we value most, deep in our heart of hearts.   These are the things that make life worth living.

I remember a particular moment during my psychoanalytic training when one of our instructors asked us what psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theory was essentially about.  We young candidates were flustered, trying to find the center of such a complex model of the mind.  “The unconscious?” one of us asked.  “Projective identification?” asked another.  Or the big kahuna, “Envy?”  Our instructor shook his head.  Gently, he said, “It’s about love.”  That was it for me.  That was my moment, when the deep and often confusing models of psychoanalysis began to make real sense.  It’s about love.  Love of self, love of other, love of life.  While it is nearly impossible to measure, it is ultimately what counts the most.

INSIGHT: Understanding what makes us tick…

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  By that definition, we all are sometimes, if not often, insane.  How can it be that perfectly intelligent people do such obviously counterproductive things so much of the time?  Why do we do the things we know we shouldn’t do, and why do we fail to do the things we know we should do?

So much of ordinary life is a mystery to us.  Why do children tend to repeat the mistakes of their parents?  Why do second marriages often wind up just like the first?  Why are self-help books so rarely helpful?  In short, why do we make the same mistakes, over and over again, seeming never to learn?

The simple answer to these questions is that our unconscious mind greatly influences all that we do.  Understanding the features of the unconscious mind is a key to making changes that last.  We cannot work to improve something we do not understand, and this is the basis for the psychoanalytic idea that insight leads to change.  We first need to understand what makes us tick.

One of the basic principles of psychoanalysis is that the mind is like a glacier.  So much of what motivates us and concerns us–holds us back and pushes us forward–lies beneath the surface.  We do our best to work with what we know–the tip of the glacier, the conscious mind.  But powerful forces lie beneath the surface, the unconscious mind.  Psychoanalysis is one of the most developed ways to gain access and understanding to the unconscious mind, and thus to have an opportunity to influence it for the better.  Meditation, deep love connections, spiritual experiences, dream work, and other practices also are avenues to working with unconscious life.

Melanie Klein, a psychoanalyst who developed the ideas of Sigmund Freud in London, believed that the unconscious affects us from the beginning of life.  Each of us comes into the world pre-programmed to experience life in certain ways.  Some of us are more sensitive than others.  Some are shy, others outgoing.  Some are more prone to aggression, others withdraw in the face of conflict and anxiety.  Some lean more on the intellect, others on emotion.  This hard-wiring that is commonly known as temperament is the nature side of the nature-nurture balance that shapes how a personality develops.  If you have any experience with babies, you know exactly what I’m talking about!

Each of us comes into the world with expectations of how the world will treat us and how we will respond, and then our early experiences confirm or challenge these conceptions.  A particularly warm family experience can soften the sharp edges of a prickly porcupine temperament.  A hostile and perfectionistic family experience can intensify that same predisposition.  An abusive environment can weaken the resolve and resilience of even the most optimistic little personality, and a supportive, challenging environment can foster her great success in life.  We are a blend of our hard-wiring and the software operating system of our early environment.

The power of the unconscious is in its tendency to repeat these patterns that get laid down in the earliest months of our lives.  We live out these inner and outer experiences over and over again, and often we don’t know it and can’t see it.  Psychoanalysis seeks to help us understand how we operate unconsciously–why we do the things we do–so that we can know more and more about these unique strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, and vulnerabilities.  By understanding what makes us tick, the unconscious is brought into the world of consciousness.  Only then can we begin to make different choices and to make changes that last.

One of Freud’s famous phrases is where id was, there ego shall be.  The modern version of this idea is that where the unconscious was, the conscious shall be.   There are secrets that we keep, even from ourselves.  The wisdom of psychoanalysis can bring these secrets out of hiding, into the light of day.   Understanding ourselves is the beginning to changing ourselves.  By itself, insight is not enough; but it is the essential first step in changing our ways.

Relax… It’s just analysis.

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!