She’s hanging in the Louvre She’s sitting in your office chair
Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy,
Out in the back seat of my ’60 Chevy,
Workin’ on mysteries without any clues,
Workin’ on our night moves.
Trying’ to make some front page drive-in news,
Workin’ on our night moves in the summertime,
In the sweet summertime.
I woke last night to the sound of thunder,
How far off I sat and wondered.
Started humming a song from 1962.
Ain’t it funny how the night moves?
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose.
Strange how the night moves,
With autumn closin’ in.
— Night Moves, Bob Seger
That about sums it up, doesn’t it? We’re all “workin’ on mysteries, without any clues.” You never know what kind of mysteries someone is working on, until you listen, very, very closely. People come to therapy for many reasons, and with amazingly varied expectations. What do I mean by ‘amazingly varied’? Well, try this on for size:
I once saw Jimmie, a guy in his late Thirties, who said, and I quote:
“We just found out my wife is sick. She might have cancer, but they’re not sure yet. Well, the thing is, I’ve never had a problem before in my whole life. Everything’s been easy and just gone great. My family is wonderful, my marriage is perfect, and my career has been a dream. So now, I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”
Wow. I felt like saying, “Dude – can I touch you? Maybe some of that will rub off on me!”
What actually happened? I explained to him that, while feelings have their own ‘reality’, and are important, they are not ‘actual’ reality, and that you can allow the feelings (e.g. panic) to be there, while still having a larger part of you that is going ahead and functioning in the real world at the same time. A feeling (e.g. panic that his wife might be very ill) is not a true representation of outer reality, but is only what happens when outside information ‘bounces’ off your insides. Therefore, you can say, “Wow, I feel panicky,” at the same time as having a more accurate, ‘larger,’ realistic assessment of the situation (“My wife might be ill – we’ll see”), and these can coexist without the feeling overwhelming the overall picture, or your functionality in life.
He nodded, thoughtfully. “Thanks – I think I’ve got it now.” He paused. “Can I call you if it doesn’t work?”
I said, “Uh, off course – anytime.”
He shook my hand, left, and that was it.
Oh, I did get a brief phone message about a month later:
“This is Jimmie. It worked. By the way, my wife is fine. Thanks.”
Once again: Wow! Maybe I should have touched the hem of his garment! Well, needless to say, Jimmie is not representative of most people’s lives and emotional issues, or else I’d be out of a job today – or maybe a film professor, explaining how Orson Welles revolutionized deep focus, or something. But I really love being a therapist, so thanks for having problems, everyone! (Just kidding.)
But most people’s ‘mysteries’ are a lot more daunting than Jimmie’s. To wit:
How could the father who loved me so much, who was, by far, my best parent, who was the only person who understood me and made me feel loved and seen – also have molested me?
How can it be that so many people who only want power, or to be admired, or money, have contributed so many amazing things to our culture?
Why is it that the only women I’m attracted to are the ones who hurt me?
How come, so often, after I have accomplished something good, I feel like killing myself?
Why does my husband keep having affairs, even though I know he loves me?
Now, these are mysteries – serious ones, the answers to which can really alter lives.
So, what do I ‘do’ when someone comes in with these kinds of tormenting questions? Do I cite chapter and verse of some heavy psychology book I read that says,
“Every time someone says ____________, it means ___________”?
I could: people LOVE this – and that’s why so many therapists can get away with being authoritarian (as opposed to authoritative), prescriptive, and definitive. Many, many times patients have told me that a previous therapist told them stuff like, “When a tree appears in a dream, it signifies the flowering of the unconscious,” or “Yawning a lot is a sign that your creative element is blocked.” Like I said, people LOVE definitive statements like this; one’s psychological life is so difficult to get a ‘fix’ on, that anything specific and definite you can (supposedly!) find out feels like getting a piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
Not to mention, people are paying you to be an expert, to answer the question: What does ____________ mean?” – not to jack around asking them,
“Hmmm – what do you think it means?”
So what do I do? I listen to them, and I listen to myself, over time. And then I share (selectively) what I hear inside, and I ask them to share what they hear inside, over time.
Sounds easy, huh?
Believe me, I want to know the answers to their mysteries, and wish I could just ‘lay it on ’em’ and have their questions resolved immediately (although, yep, maybe then I’d be out of customers and back to being a film professor!), but it most certainly (how’s that for definitive?) does not work that way. By the way, I’m not just goofing around with that whole film professor thing: doing therapy is a lot like art appreciation. You wouldn’t just tear through War and Peace, or The Searchers, or The Naked Maja, and start spouting instant, ‘definitive’ opinions. If you’re a serious art, film, or literature student, scholar, or even critic, you return to the art again and again, over time, going back and forth between the work of art (what is really being presented here, anyway?) and yourself (what does it evoke in me?) – sensing carefully, then comparing, sifting, re-thinking, shifting focus, maybe doing some research, maybe comparing to other works of art: in other words, it takes work, experience, talent, and time, to do a work of art justice.
Sure, maybe you see a movie, or read a book, and all you think is, “I hated it.” Well, that’s fine, for amateurs: nothing depends on it, except maybe your friends not cuing up to see it after they’ve talked to you. But if you’re an art critic, a scholar, a commentator, or a professor, we expect a lot more out of you than, “I hated it.” We want you to dig deep, to tell us things we wouldn’t have thought of on our own, to show us things we wouldn’t have seen if not for you, to put it in a historical context, to compare it to its contemporaries, to work at it. When I read, or listen to, something a professional has said or written about a movie, a book, a piece of music, or even a performance, I want to feel, “Wow – I couldn’t have thought of that; it expanded my vision, my capacity to appreciate, and my artistic sensibilities – in some way.”
Even in sports, we expect our commentators to go beyond what is immediately apparent. When I read Baseball America, or watch MLB Now, I don’t expect to hear, “He can flat rake” (translation: he is a really good hitter), I want to hear, “With runners in scoring position, he has the highest OPB in Cardinals’ history.” You’ve got to tell me something I don’t know!
And for a therapist? Same thing: you’ve got to be a jeweler with a loupe, looking at a stone, not the guy on the street saying, “Nice rock!” Every human being is a truly amazing ‘work of art,’ and it is your job to be a professional-level appreciator, evaluater, and if necessary, restorer, of that work of art. Just like our hypothetical professional art critic, you are not there to spout definitive statements about what is before you, to point out the obvious, or to prate, “You need to change X, Y and Z,” as if the person him/herself hasn’t thought of that already. To do so would be to vastly underrate (and insult) the complexity, the ingeniousness, and yes, even the beauty, of the person before you. That is why, just as in approaching a work of art, the first (and constant) thing you do is, “Shut up and listen.”
You wouldn’t speed-read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and then say, “Duh – it’s about an old guy who’s a miser, and then he changes. Period,” would you? Well, maybe if you were a teenager who had to read it for a class, you might (and plenty of kids I work with have), but even that teenager ‘knows’ that what he did was an insult to a great classic (and yes, those kids do know that).
What you do is this: you ASSUME that there is a richness, a complexity, and much to learn, from the person you’re working with. You ASSUME they can’t just be skimmed and summarized, like a D student does at the last minute with A Christmas Carol. And, like a good work of art carefully studied, you assume that it will reveal its secrets in time, and that there will be worthwhile secrets to be revealed (there always are). You assume that, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, for some reason they have become emotionally constricted, and that, with enough safety, encouragement and ‘fellow-traveling,’ they will open up (like Scrooge) to the joy and meaningfulness of sharing and connection – and by sharing and connection, I mean within as well as without.
Oh, and you don’t look for an ‘answer,’ because there is no answer: what there is, is a process. Yes, in hindsight, you can see that it was a logical, step-wise progression that took you across that wide river, but at the time, it’s just feeling your way along, following the hunches and responses that are the stones you step on, one after the other, until you’re ‘there.’
So, how does someone go from suddenly ‘recovering’ memories of her beloved father molesting her, to rage and disillusionment, to seeking help from others in the same boat, to acceptance, to helping others in the same boat, to being a therapist specializing in child abuse? I don’t know – even though I was ‘there.’ I can tell you that, when treated with the reverence, genuine inquiry and respect you would accord a work of art, my patient went from being relatively unformed clay, to a far more realized work of art. Yes, I could tell you the ‘steps’ we took together, but it would be a meaningless extraction, like trying to tell someone about the thrill of a horse race by showing them a series of photos of the race.
The mysteries therapy patients hold inside resist easy solutions and formulaic approaches: they demand you to be more than you are, so that your patients may become more than they are.
Like reading a good book, the mysteries hidden inside human beings require full engagement and involvement – of the intellect, the heart, the senses, the intuition and more.
So no, I didn’t become a film professor, but I feel like I got something far richer: whenever someone asks me, “Seen any good films lately?” I can smile to myself and think, “Yes – about thirty of ’em.”
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.