Psychoanalytic psychotherapy is your second chance. Here’s how it works.
I work with all ages, from infants to seniors. Everyday I see the great human struggle between self-awareness and self-deception across the whole lifespan:
The infant pulls her hair instead of raging at her parents. She has learned to conceal her anger, even from herself.
The preschooler fears his beloved little brother will die. He has no awareness of his forbidden wish to destroy this rival. Instead, he has projected his jealous hatred onto the outside world and dreads that these dangers will kill his brother.
The kindergartner races around the room, having learned that frantic action wards off sadness.
The woman berates her ex-husband and revels in his failings, having learned to deflect regret and grief with a shield of self-righteousness.
All these self-deceptions thwart growth, but psychotherapy can restore it.
I look at psychotherapy as progressive self-knowledge, and self-knowledge as necessary for maturation. Self-knowledge--the understanding of our capabilities, character, thoughts, feelings, wishes and defenses—enables us to learn from experience, to forge real human connections, and to understand our place in the world.
Self-knowledge grows as we:
grapple with realities
think instead of react
see our humble place in the universe.
Self-knowledge begins in our earliest relationships. Infants enter the world craving for their parents to “get” them, delight in them, and reflect upon them. This is “containment,” parental understanding, the basis for self-understanding.
Containment helps infants face realities that frustrate their fantasies of omnipotence; it helps them learn to wait for satisfactions. In states of tension, infants recruit and exercise their actual abilities, while fortifying their frustration tolerance—sometimes called “emotional muscle.” As they get stronger, they begin to think.
Containment makes a safe playground where children can thoughtfully explore their inner lives, think about feelings and wishes, and exercise their minds for mental growth. Thought helps them bridge the painful gaps between longings and reality. Thought helps them use their emotions to guide problem-solving, communication, and pleasure-seeking. Later, thought helps them distinguish right from wrong, and the private interior life of reflection from the public exterior life of action. Thought builds up an understanding of their inner life.
As children mature, self-understanding helps them rank their values, the work Socrates esteemed as “caring for the soul.” He considered knowledge of one’s values essential not only to one’s shrewd allocations of time, money and mental effort; but to knowledge of oneself and to living an authentic life.
Those who value love and intimacy can see how self-knowledge counts. Ask yourself: If I do not know who I am, how will I know when my love is authentic, let alone my partner’s? And if you have children, consider: If I do not know myself, how will I know my child? How will I separate my needs from hers?
Those who value community, civic engagement or work also need self-knowledge. If you don’t know your own motives and capacities, how will you make commitments you can keep? Without an honest appraisal of your needs and frustration tolerance, how can you know that your promises will survive the bitterness that disappointments bring?
These are the reasons why we have no choice but to seat knowledge of the internal world alongside knowledge of the external world on the throne of human values. Internal knowledge needs external knowledge to make us see how vanishingly small we are, to humble us, to make us understand we are only brief sojourners in a vast reality that has condescended to create us. This too is self-knowledge.
The Costs of Self-deception
Self-deceptions keep emotional muscle weak and can appear as anxiety, depression, or social problems.
When early emotional connections fail, anger, sorrow and anxiety turn us toward self-deception. We don’t want to think about feelings, so, in our weakness, we act on them. A slighted little boy, seeing his friends together at play, throws blocks. As a teenager, he insults his friends; years later, at the slightest sign of neglect, he shuns his wife. His tantrums block communication and rob energy from realistic problem-solving. Such self-deceptions, arising from emotional weakness, will appear as anxiety, depression, learning inhibitions, compulsive behavior, or social problems. Of course, genes can contribute to emotional problems. Neuroscience, however, shows that life experience, before and after birth, turns genes on or off. And it shows that life experience, especially human intimacy, sculpts the brain regions used to handle feelings. It’s a vicious cycle: early relationships fail; self-deception grows; later relationships suffer; emotional muscle fails to develop and self-deception becomes more profound. But self-knowledge and development can begin at any time; you can always cut the costs of self-deception. Psychotherapy gives you a second chance to grow and thrive.
How Psychotherapy Builds Self-Knowledge
Psychotherapy, available to anyone, is a disciplined regimen for strengthening emotional muscle and building self-knowledge. It teaches new ways to solve old emotional problems and builds tolerance for tensions. In psychotherapy, we’ll trace the natural history of your troubles to discover how and why you first hid your feelings. Then, we’ll watch for self-deception during sessions. For example, the jealous preschooler tries to run out of the room, the scared teenager endlessly criticizes me, and the embarrassed adult jumps from topic to topic.
In sessions, you’ll:
discover your self-deceptions
tolerate feelings long avoided
learn more flexible ways to handle these feelings.
My work with children has shown me the vulnerabilities lurking behind adult defenses, the fears and injuries that made defenses necessary. As defensive strategies become familiar, you’ll perceive feelings long avoided. You’ll discover more flexible ways to handle these feelings. In psychotherapy, you’ll identify your habitual defenses and their purposes, you’ll accumulate self-knowledge, the guardian of emotional strength.
In psychotherapy, people talk about whatever is on their minds. Sometimes they discuss everyday problems, and when I see a solution, I share it. But while looking at everyday problems, I’ll help us keep one eye on the higher goal of self-understanding and the self-deceptions that have enfeebled you. We’ll protect free space for you to talk about your dreams, fantasies, wishes, and longings. Over time, with frequent, regular sessions, psychotherapy deepens into an intense psychoanalytic experience. This can help you, not just to resolve the troubles that prompted therapy, but to take a more active and thoughtful role in your relationships. This is your second chance at development, the gift of the psychoanalytic tradition, a gift I joyfully offer to people of all ages.