Tips For Adulthood: Five Things Psychotherapists Shouldn’t Do

August 25, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Daphne Merkin’s recent essay in The New York Times Magazine about her lifelong search for the perfect psycho-therapist has generated quite a bit of buzz.

As I noted last week, when I first read Merkin’s piece, I was fairly sure that it would serve as another great example of the age-old aphorism “there are two types of people in the world…”. On the one hand, I knew that some people would be turned off by this five-page, detailed meditation on Merkin’s ongoing relationship to psychotherapy, using it as confirmation that psychotherapy really is just an extended exercise in (pointless) narcissism. On the other hand, I also imagined that there would be people (like me) who — while acknowledging the self-indulgent nature of therapy — find both the process and analysis…of analysis…endlessly fascinating. Which is another way of saying that I couldn’t put the article down.

Those predictions turned out to be right, as a quick scan of the Letters To The Editor on that post in The New York Times will attest.

But while I’m generally in the supportive camp on therapy-as-life-strategy, I think it’s worth looking at the critiques that are emerging from the article about psychotherapy more generally. They seem to come in three varieties.

Read the rest of this article at www.PoliticsDaily.com

Image: dr_sigmund2 by zoria via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways Talk Therapy Can Help

August 11, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s list is inspired by the front page article in the New York Times magazine over the weekend  by Daphne Merkin, which provides an account of the author’s life-long search for the perfect psycho-therapist.

I have a feeling that this article could serve as another great example of the age-old “there are two types of people in the world…”. On the one hand, there are undoubtedly people who will be turned off by this five-page, detailed meditation on Merkin’s ongoing relationship to psychotherapy, using it as confirmation that psychotherapy really is just an extended exercise in (pointless) narcissism. On the other hand, there are people (like me) who – while acknowledging the self-indulgent nature of therapy – find both the process and analysis…of analysis…endlessly fascinating. Which is another way of saying that I couldn’t put the article down.

Wherever you fall on the “therapy as literature” debate, I do think that seeing a therapist of any sort can be extraordinarily useful at certain points in your life. And, apparently, more and more of my adopted country’s citizens agree with me. While talk therapy has long been an important part of American life,  more and more Brits have gotten on board with psycho-therapy in recent years. A a recent survey suggests that 94% of people in the U.K. now consider it acceptable to have counseling and psychotherapy for anxiety and depression, compared with just 67% in 2004.

If you’re a therapy skeptic or just haven’t felt the need to see a shrink, here’s a layman’s perspective on five ways talk therapy can help you (But be sure to read my “five things not to do in therapy” before you go!):

1. It gives you a narrative. Whether of not you actually pay someone to help you do this, most of us spend a good portion of our adult lives trying to figure ourselves out. Therapy is a useful tool in that process because – if you stick with it long enough – you gradually acquire a story that you can tell yourself to make sense of your past. At the risk of dumbing things down, think of this as a sort of “thesis sentence” (remember 9th grade English?) about your life. It might be something as simple as “I was put on this earth to accompany my sister” or “I was invisible to my parents.” Whatever it is, having a framework about yourself is helpful for moving forward.

2. You identify patterns. As you begin to unearth your own narrative, you’ll discover that you have a habit of repeating certain behaviors. In my own case, a shrink once casually observed that “freedom of movement” is a defining characteristic of who I am. And in one fell swoop, I made sense of about five different things going on in my life, from relationship issues to living overseas. It’s not until you can clearly see the patterns that you can think about change.

3.You normalize your problems. “Ordinary Misery” or “Ordinary Unhappiness” (to generously paraphrase Freud) is the goal here, folks. Which is another way of saying that if you stay inside your own head too long you run the risk of thinking that your problems are worse than they are. Conversely, by talking to someone else about your problems you come to see that a.) you aren’t insane b.) lots of other people share your issues and c.) all of these things are fixable. This does not mean that you’ll necessarily end up “happy” (whatever that is). But in converting your demons into ordinary problems, you’ll be happi-er, which is probably enough for most of us mere mortals.

4. You change your life. Or at least you have the tools to do so. In my own case, I can point to several major life changes that wouldn’t have happened without therapy, ranging from the profound (career change) to the seemingly-trivial-but-in-fact-hugely-consequential (yoga). Provided that you do it the right way, therapy offers you a chance to take abstract  insights about yourself and apply those towards concrete changes in your life.

5. It offers hope. See 1, 2, 3 and 4. And in an era where suicide rates are up among middle-aged Americans, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

*****

I’m over on Politics Daily today talking about the new trend towards early puberty in girls and what it might mean for everyone else.


Image: Week Five – Face of Depression by Jessica Hime via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Personality Tests: Do We Actually Change as We Grow Older?

August 3, 2009

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to personality tests lately.

First, The New York Times reported that the psychological profession is up in arms because Wikipedia has reproduced a set of common answers to the famous Rorschach inkblot tests. The psychologists claim that the site is jeopardizing one of the oldest, continuously used psychological assessment tests.

I also happened to take a personality test on Facebook last week. It was the “Which punctuation Mark Are You?” quiz. Here’s my answer, with explanation included:

You are a comma.

You like to spread yourself a little thin, trying to be all things to all people. A bit of a control freak, you try to do the work of 10 people. Relax! Let someone else shoulder some of the burden for once!

Which isn’t so bad, in and of itself, except that it duplicated every personality test I’ve ever taken in my life. I took the first one – the famous Myers Briggs test – when I was first out of college. That’s the one where they evaluate you on four dimensions: extroversion vs. introversion, intuition vs. sensing, thinking vs. feeling and judging vs. perceiving. Then you’re assigned a type. I was an “ENTJ” (extroverted/intuitive/thinking/judging), which turned out to be the most extreme of the 16 potential combinations you could wind up with. I raised my hand and asked the consultant what you called it if you had a borderline score on a couple of dimensions – suggesting that perhaps you might easily fall into another “type” – but nonetheless ended up in the 16th box?

“That’s called denial,” she retorted briskly.

Years later, I took another personality test in when I was working in public radio. This time, the categories were a bit different, but the result was basically the same:  I came out as “high dominant” or “High D” for short. The consultant gave everyone a print-out of their results. The idea was to go home and review the list of behaviors associated with your type and use that to improve office harmony with co-workers of different stripes. But the person who seemed to benefit most from the hand-out was not me, but my husband. I came home from work one evening to find him sitting on the sofa – glass of Merlot in hand – poring over the document as if it were an original Shakespeare. He was clearly relishing every word, pausing from time to time to quote back to me from the report about typical “High D” behaviors.

Particularly as we settle into middle-age, it’s natural to want to re-examine who we are and where we’re headed in life. And personality tests are one tool to help us do that. I’m also sure that on some level I should be reassured that my own results are so unerringly consistent across the decades – what statisticians call test reliability.

Still, as someone who has defined herself largely on her ability and willingness to change, I find it a tad depressing to discover – once again – that we actually don’t change all that much over the course of our lives.

How about you? Have you ever taken a personality test and what did you learn about yourself that you didn’t already know?

Image: Rorschach Test by Marie.Carrion via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Finding My Parachute: Why Self-Help Books Aren’t Just for Ninnies

June 18, 2009

It’s always a pleasure when – whilst ambling through one’s RSS feed or just cruising the internet – you stumble upon a kindred spirit out there in cyberspace.

This happened to me the other day when I came across an article by Liesl Schillinger in a 1997 issue of O Magazine entitled Hooked on Self Help Books Against Her Will – recently reprinted online.

In it, the author – a regular contributor the New York Times Book Review and one time Style columnist – fesses up to being a late convert to the whole self-help genre.

I could relate. Until quite recently, whenever I entered a book store and saw the “self-help” section, I turned and ran in the opposite direction.

Schillinger’s reluctance stemmed from her childhood belief that she could divine most of life’s important lessons from literature. She was also raised to be skeptical of anything therapeutic.

In my case – as I think this blog makes clear – an aversion to therapy was never my issue. My problem was always the popular nature of this kind of literature. Self-help books just seemed – as Schillinger puts it so gently – for “ninnies.”

But I’ve changed my tune on all that. It started the day I decided to change careers and realized that, despite my advanced degrees, I had absolutely no clue how to go about that. So I read a book called What Color Is Your Parachute – the self-help book to end all self-help books – and I was off and running.

Then I had a couple of kids and realized that, contrary to all this business about the end of over-parenting, an attentive but something-less-than-religious read of a few carefully selected parenting books can actually stand you in good stead.

As I gradually began to read blogs on a regular basis, I came to realize that these, too, are often another variant on the self-help genre. (Although I remain sufficiently resistant to the tag that I thought about sub-titling this blog “self help with a twist,” less anyone thought that I took myself too seriously…)

And, of course, what is seeing a life coach but one giant dose of self-help stuffed into a human body?

In short, it’s been a slow conversion for me. But, like Schillinger, I’m coming around to the conclusion that it’s by tinkering with the small things in daily life that you can actually effect change in the big ones. In other words, life really is one giant “How To” in six easy steps…it’s identifying those steps that’s the hard part. And that’s what self-help books are there for.

Now where did I put that tome on achieving work/life balance?

Image: Parachute by km6xo via Flickr from a Creative Commons License.

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Growing Up: Safety in Movement

June 1, 2009

Well, I’m back from Scotland, a place where they really do say “wee” for “little” and “aye” for “yes” and eat (gulp) haggis (end gulp).

One of the things I like most about living in London is how easy (and cheap) it is to leave. All of Europe – plus Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia – is just a few hours away by plane. When we first moved here, I wasn’t sure how much of these we’d actually manage to squeeze in. (Answer: more than I expected, largely due to my new found stint as a travel writer.) But even if we hadn’t ended up traveling all that much, what really appealed to me was the idea that I could leave if I wanted to. In other words, it wasn’t the actual movement that attracted me; it was the possibility of movement.

“You strike me as someone for whom freedom of movement is a defining part of who you are,” a therapist once told me. This happened, by the way, during the interview phase of finding a new therapist here in London. I didn’t end up choosing this particular person (a Jungian, as it turned out), but boy was that an hour well spent. (The kicker: because it was just an interview, she didn’t even charge me for this mind-altering insight. Can you imagine that happening in the U.S.?)

I realized, as I thought about it, that she was absolutely right. It explains why I jumped at the possibility of moving overseas. It explains why I like to change careers. And it also explains why I used to have a lot of trouble committing to long-term relationships.

This isn’t, actually, how most people approach their lives. I know lots of people whose sense of security is derived from living in the same neighborhood over time…hanging out with the same group of people into adulthood…staying with the same job or company over their career. There is something about familiarity and routine that they find reassuring and predictable and it makes them happy.

But in my case, paradoxically – and for all sorts of complicated psychological reasons that I won’t bore you with but which have, rest assured, have been amply explored elsewhere –  I actually feel safer when I know that change is on the horizon (or at least potentially so). And so I’ve come, belatedly, to embrace this part of my character rather than just assuming, as I did for so long, that I’d eventually “grow up and settle down.” Because for better or for worse, this is who I am.

Which is a long way of saying that growing up is a really complicated thing to figure out. And you just hope that every so often, you bump into someone – it might be that random Jungian you interviewed and never saw again – who helps you make sense of it. In the meantime, thank goodness I can begin planning that next trip to Munich….

*****

Speaking of expat living, I was delighted to discover, courtesy of Freakonomics, that living abroad gives expats greater creativity in problem solving.

Image: First Air 727-100 by caribb via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips for Adulthood: Five Things Not To Do In Therapy

May 20, 2009

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Last week, I posted about five reasons to see a life coach. But I’ve seen all kinds of therapists over the years, and gleaned a lot of lessons along the way. Most of those have been positive lessons about what I ought to do with my life. But I’ve also learned a trick or two about what not to do with a therapist. So, in my (life long?) tribute to therapy, this week’s post is about five things you don’t want to do in therapy:

1. Don’t go on word of mouth. This goes to the choice of therapist. My very first therapist came highly recommended by another shrink. She was a lovely woman. But she was absolutely wrong for me. Where I craved insight, she favored behavioral therapy. Where she wanted a hug; I wanted a hand shake. It’s like dating, folks, and you need to take a few test drives before you commit. Ever since then, whenever I move – because, hey, what’s a move without a new therapist? – I make a point of  interviewing several people before closing the deal. (Buyer beware: in the U.S., at least, they’ll charge for this initial meeting.)

2. Don’t be late. Being late is a clear-cut sign that you’re ambivalent about therapy and your therapist will go to town with it (while billing you all the while…).

3. Don’t leave something behind. Similarly, it’s therapy-death to leave a coat or handbag behind. Clearly, you wanted/needed an excuse to come back. You’ll spend weeks on this. Trust me.

4. Don’t comment on appearances.  I once complimented a therapist on her new glasses. She actually blushed, at which point I felt ridiculous and it took the rest of the session to get over this awkward hump. But this cuts both ways. I have a friend who was describing her body image issues to a (male) therapist, to which he replied, “Speaking as a man, I can tell you you’re attractive.” Easy, tiger. Speaking as a female, I can tell you to keep that to yourself.

5. Don’t share a therapist. I’ve never done this myself, but I have friends who’ve shared therapists with their mothers, mothers-in-law, even husbands. If you’re trying to keep some semblance of boundaries (not to mention boundaries for the therapist), it’ s probably best to see your own guy/gal and keep it personal. Just be sure you shop around…


Image: Doctor Writing by Suat Eman via freedigitalphotos.net.


Tips for Adulthood: Five Reasons To See a Life Coach

May 13, 2009

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood. Today’s post concerns one of my favorite topics, therapy:

Today, I woke up really tense. I had way too much to do and a shortened work day, in part because I had an appointment to see my life coach.

And then I realized: Wait a minute! Isn’t one of the reasons I see a life coach precisely to avoid feeling so tense all of the time?

Indeed, it is. And, miraculously, it works. Like yoga, talking to my life coach is like immersing myself in a giant bottle of jojoba bath oil.

So today, in honor of my lovely life coach, I’ll post on five reasons why you, too, can benefit from a life coach:

1. It’s all about moving forward. If, like me, you’re a die-hard Freudian at heart, you probably spend a lot of time digging around your past. Do that in good health. Lord knows I have. But there comes a point where you’ll invariably max out on “insight” and need to figure out what you’re going to do with all that history. And that, my friend, is where a life coach kicks in.

2. It’s Positive. My life coach is relentlessly upbeat. The first time I saw her, she noted that I tended to talk only about what I did wrong as a parent, rather than identifying what I did right. Now, at her behest, I make a point of writing down three things that I do right with my kids each day. A bit less Andrea Yates and a bit more Mary Poppins, if you will. Turns out “just a spoon full of sugar” really does help the medicine go down…

3. You get homework. Whenever we meet, my coach assigns me homework – little strategies for changing various behaviors I dislike in myself. I then write these down in a book and take notes on my progress throughout the week. As someone with a super-ego that could rival even Freud’s, having a task I must complete suits my personality perfectly.

4. It’s Practical. Whenever I come to my life coach with any sort of grievance, she immediately re-focuses the conversation around the question “What Works?” As in: “So your husband tried to teach you how to operate the VCR and you snapped his head off  because you were in a rush even though you were the one who asked him to teach you how to do it…Hmmmm. Let’s see how we could have reacted to that differently.” “Really?” I thought, the first time this happened. “But don’t you want to talk about my father?”

5. It’s great material for your blog.

*****

No time or money for a therapist? Check out Colleen Wainwright’s fabulous blog, Communicatrix. Plenty o’ doses of life coaching right there. Plus it’s really funny…

Image: Freud by Ross Burton via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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