How can I stop being a therapist all the time?

It's important to reflect. But how can I lighten up? Aren't we all just doing the best we can?

Published July 13, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Hi, Cary --

I have this idea that everyone should look at their past, look at their family of origin, get some therapy, and grieve the losses and hurts that are inherent in being alive. I recently went through a breakup, and I know that part of his reason for wanting to leave the relationship was that I asked so much of him in this way. I ask a lot of myself, I'm a therapist and I'm in my own analysis, but as he said, not everyone wants to do that level of intense soul-searching. He told me yesterday that he has been drunk every day since we split over three weeks ago; I responded that this made me sad, and he got a little defensive. He says it's fine, he knows he will tire of it and go back to his usual low level of consumption, and that he's glad that (compared to some in his family and social circle) he's a healthy drinker. I believe him. He's not an alcoholic; he does use alcohol as a stress reliever, like many people. I do it sometimes. I eat chocolate, too. And fantasize, and scream and kick doors in my house, and ... you get the picture. We all have ways of coping that are not maybe as productive, but they ultimately don't do us in.

Why do I seem to always go to the extreme, that if someone isn't actively looking at their stuff, they are never going to have a good life? That they will never be "healed"? I put that in quotes because at this point, I don't even know what I mean by it, and I almost don't trust the word. Aren't we all just doing the best we can? Or are we? Because if we are, then do I let my own family off the hook for not being willing to look at the damage done? My therapist says my parents could have gotten help with their own issues and saved me and my siblings lots of pain and suffering. They didn't, in spite of being therapists themselves (you know what they say about the cobbler's children). It feels like I can't forgive them for that, and I get angry that I have had to be in therapy for years just to have some semblance of a life that works.

Is that why I have such high expectations of others? First of all, my family of origin had some issues that aren't happening in every household, but I almost doubt myself when I say that. I know that many, many families deal with issues of sexual abuse, with violence, with addiction and power and control. Or is my perspective skewed by the work I do as a therapist and the fact that most of my friends are also therapists? This question almost feels like a red herring -- the people I love and care about who are not working with their issues all have histories including the things I mentioned. They did not have a rosy childhood, any of them. How can I let them do whatever they are going to do, while still loving them and having hope for their future? This feels similar to the zeal I had as a born-again Christian years ago -- I was sure my loved ones were going to hell, and I had to tell them how not to. You can imagine how that went. Where is this feeling I have to save everyone coming from, and what can I do with it?

I will talk to my therapist about this, I'm sure -- but I would love to hear your thoughts. I don't want people to feel like I see them as projects, or as shallow for not wanting to go into the gut-wrenching depths. I know, I KNOW, how hard that is. I am choosing to do it, but I wonder at times if I even really believe it's a choice -- it feels more like an imperative. What would happen to me if I didn't? Would I just do the best I could, like most people, or would I have spectacular failure and pain, as I seem to fear?

Thanks, Cary.


Dear Analysand,

Anybody ever say to you, "Please don't talk to me like you're my therapist"?

It's happened to me, and I'm not even a therapist.

If you're used to analyzing people's problems and wondering what's going on, looking for the hidden answer and the hidden motive, looking for patterns in a person's life that the person herself has overlooked, well, that habit may spill over into your private life and you're going to be annoying now and then.

Because, let's just have a sandwich sometimes, you know? Let's just relate like two people.

Probably cops get some of this same thing. Stop being a cop and just be a person. That kind of thing.

So yeah, it's maddening, to me, to be living in a world where much of human behavior seems transparent, and you wonder why the other person isn't acknowledging things that seem pretty obvious. But when you push, it comes off like you're being superior, like you have all the answers. When of course it's pretty much the opposite, that you've seen just how few answers you actually do have.

So yeah, I get you. And gee, it's got to be nutty being with so many therapists all the time. And yet, I'm sure it's also very rich.

So anyway I can tell you that what has helped me a great deal in the last couple of years was looking at myself not as the main actor in this but as the center of a collection of competing archetypes.

It's kinda weird to think about in this way, but a person I was working with persuaded me (it didn't take much, actually) to conjure up the voices of these different archetypes, and it had a profound effect on how I view my own personality.

Well, so the basic structure of it, as it worked for me, is that this seeking of power is not you directly seeking power, but a voice within you, an archetype visiting you, an archetype who is naturally expressing him- or herself, and his or her expression is about power. So if you don't like the expression of power in such a raw form, by thinking it's you, you're suppressing it. Because that's not you. Of course not. But it's a part of you. Like maybe you're playing the superego role. But by allowing this version of yourself, this voice in you, by having some compassion for it and allowing it to seek power in its way, maybe you can lower the conflict a little.

The thing that has helped me the most in this regard involves asking, What is trying to emerge? What is trying to get its needs met? We come to see ourselves as curators of a personal menagerie.

And so then we ask, what the hell are we talking about?

We are talking about sides of ourselves that are seeking fullness, seeking to come into being or come into fullness. Rather than focus on the "I" at the center of things, we realize that we live in a nexus of many emerging selves. For me, for instance, there is the musician and the woodsman and the solitary one, and the lover and the friend and the writer. And some of these personalities are unpleasant; they seek to dominate, to destroy, to take; they are uncivilized and animalistic. There is in me the arrogant, imperious one who seeks to know all and slay all rivals. There is the one who seeks to break all fetters, to tear out of the classroom and run free. There is the one who wants to rip up the room and expose all pretense and get everyone drunk.

So there may be within you a very martial personality, the world-conquering, marauding, warrior personality, or something like that, the mastermind, and this impulse, or archetype, may be crying out to be heard. Perhaps it arises when you sense you are in danger. Or perhaps it arises out of boredom, or perhaps needs no reason at all to arise, but is simply within you, and unacknowledged.

We tend to acknowledge the parts of ourselves that we think are good. But the parts we think are not so good, they get irritated when neglected, and they come around too, nudging us, wanting recognition.

I do not know what this kind of therapy is called. I only know that for quite some time I would regularly sit on a rug and be asked, "What is most present right now? What is most alive?" And  this question was an invitation to these archetypes to express themselves. And as a consequence I became more friendly with parts of myself and more attuned to their requests to appear.

So it is a kind of organizing method, akin, I suppose, to the tarot: a set of archetypes.

And the beauty of it was, for me, to see myself less as the master of all around me, responsible for everything, and more as a kind of hapless dad, powerless over several vibrant and emerging lives: responsible for their needs but powerless over their ultimate shape. That is how I view myself today, as the water boy for a strange team.

So I buy instruments for my musician self. I give him lots of practice time. Etc.

Also on that strange team is, of course, the one I call "me." But the "me" is increasingly a mystery.

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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