Over the dinner table some years ago an acquaintance of mine asked her husband, my wife, and me, “What would you ask for if you could have anything in the world?” We each thought for a minute and answered. When it came to her turn she said, “I have no need to dance on the table since I’ve been analyzed.”
She presented herself as if her old personality had been replaced by this “new and improved” model purified of neurosis through psychoanalysis. I felt angry that she had set us up but also troubled by her yearning to be “perfect.”
Although psychotherapy is often viewed as a modern “technology” for change, its original meaning is study of the soul. How did our study of the soul turn into the hatred and removal of it? How does psychotherapy get transformed into the narcissistic claim that we are free of ourselves, of ego, of neurosis, or even of feelings?
Narcissism is such a sneaky trait. I’m reminded of the fellow who bragged, “You wouldn’t believe how humble I’ve become!” How ironic that we can misuse therapy to reinforce our narcissism and self-hatred.
At the same time, my best teachers and supervisors were honest and humble. Rather than pretend they had eliminated their faults, they were honest about them. One supervisor referred to his higher level of perfection: he was now perfectly imperfect! These teachers connected to themselves rather than to a narcissistic fantasy. They were present, real, and sometimes blunt.
They were earthy. One analyst, a teacher of mine, said to a patient, “I’m your therapist, not your toilet.” They didn’t pretend to be above it all on some “higher plane”. They were here, now. And that was enough.
What would psychotherapy be like if it was not organized around self-rejection, moving to a “higher plane”, getting rid of flawed human nature? What if therapy was committed to the mess of being human? What if we treated our inner messes not as things to be eradicated but to be known? What if we loved the soul as it comes up, no matter how messy, so we can know it?
A highly resistant patient revealed that he had been a petty thief. Shall I reject and judge him, or shall I embrace and come to know the soul of a thief? What if his soul has come to me, so I can know my own soul more deeply? Rather than ask him to transcend his history of the thief so I can feel more comfortable, can I meet this thief? Can I allow myself to be touched and moved by a thief? Can I find that part of myself that does not feel guilt over committing a crime?
This kind of psychotherapy is based on love of the other’s soul and one’s own, no matter how messy and pathological. We recognize the raw vulnerability within ourselves and others that never goes away no matter how much therapy we have. It’s a therapy where our illusions and fantasies will always be crucified on the cross of reality.
When I reject or judge that thief, what am I rejecting and judging within myself? What illusions do I hold about myself, to which the patient holds the match so they can burn? What if therapy is the heart cracking open so I can embrace the “not-me” which is really the me I disavowed. Then he and I discover one less dividing line between us. I thought I was about to fall apart, but it was just my illusions disintegrating. Do I still have the need to dance on the table? Yeah, that sounds about right. Am I a thief? I can see where that has been true. Every yes takes us a step closer toward the love of his soul which, in the end, is our own.