CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Flunking Dr. Phil: In Praise of Introspection

Americans like our self-awareness like we like our food -- fast, and in bite-sized McNuggets. We pop pills and turn to self help books and TV "experts" to prop up or moods and pep up our orgasms. Yet we feel more impotent than ever.

How did we become a culture that reveres Dr. Phil yet reviles Dr. Freud?

When smiley-faced emoticons have replaced genuine emotions, and instant messaging trumps introspection, the ability to know oneself has fallen upon hard times. Given how overwhelmed so many people feel, the desire for easy answers is understandable. The idea of looking inside can be frightening when what's inside feels dark and shameful. That's what's so tantalizing about therapies that promise symptom relief without having to look at how the problems got there in the first place.

Yet in their rush to avoid introspection, many people end up feeling more stuck and confused. People who put "positive energy" into the universe (the mantra de jure) with little result end up doubting themselves more. They never understand what's beneath their negative thinking. Someone who cleans up the mess in their house only to re-create it days later is unaware that the mess symbolizes how they feel inside. Part of them unconsciously needs to create mess for many complex reasons. The deep-seated feelings they are trying to get away from are now simply expressed through new obsessions, addictions and phobias.

To borrow a motto from the 1970s, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Concrete techniques to change destructive thought patterns and behaviors can be very helpful -- I use them in my practice all the time. But without also understanding what the mind is struggling to express and not express at the same time, the root of what causes self-destructive actions never becomes unearthed. Shame, fear and confusion often linger.

Psychoanalysis offers more than just a Band-Aid for multilayered wounds -- although it often does provide immediate relief for disturbing symptoms. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy does something more deep and lasting. It takes you on a journey of self-awareness.

There are potentialities existing within us all. Psychoanalysis is about excavating our pasts, but also about unearthing new ways to be with oneself and others going forward. It is deeply personal and deeply practical. Understanding the genesis of our problems, and recognizing how we unwittingly contribute to their perpetuation in the present, allows us to feel more in control of our lives.

I sometimes catch a glance of Dr. Phil on my gym's large-screen TV. I watch him only in small doses, and with the volume down. Then I look away and see where my mind takes me. It's a nice work out.
-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

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