The promise of an interesting conversation

I don’t know where this will lead, but let’s see what happens.

I had a brief conversation with a hiking buddy last week  that went something like this:

“Psychology is crap.”

Hmmmm…”What do you mean?”

“All that stuff about Oedipus complex just makes everyone think they have it.”

Interesting…”Yes, that was Freud,” I said. In school, we learn all about theories, and pathology. We learn about the power of suggestion too. Every one of us can recognize ourselves in every disorder.

“In my experience with therapy, though, theory is not that important.” Then I tried to explain what therapy means to me. I fumbled around awhile trying to understand it myself. I wish I had asked more questions.

“Therapy is magical,” she said.

Before she answered, and maybe she was fumbling around with some ideas too, the conversation shifted off to another topic. In hindsight, I was caught off guard by the promise of a more meaningful conversation than I’ve had in a while. Gratefully so, because it’s given my holiday stupor a kick in the pants.

You know how social conversations go. People talk about TV shows and Netflix movies, sports, weather, the stock market, housing prices (here in LA anyway), maybe a little gossip, current events after testing the political wind around the people in earshot, food, niceties. Social conversations steer clear of anything too intellectual or deep or controversial and certainly nothing emotional. Yet this conversation had that other element, a hint of a deeper, richer ribbon of discourse woven between the lighter fare.

Wanted: Guidance

Later she said she wanted guidance. Again, I wish I would have asked more questions, but I said, “No one can tell you what to do. And why would you want anyone telling you how to live your life anyway?” Not very compassionate of me. Not very honest either.

The truth is, now that I’ve gnawed on that idea awhile, I realize that most of us (me included) long for someone to tell us what to do. Not all the time, of course; just when the going gets tough, when we feel lost or bewildered or overwhelmed. We want someone to say go this way, or take this risk, or stay away from that person, or jump into that relationship with both feet.

Life is so complicated, so difficult at times, how can you, or anyone, possibly figure out how to navigate the uncertainties AND make a plan that leads to happiness while feeling good about the choices you’ve made?

Guidance is available

There’s plenty of advice and guidance out there; just look at some recent Facebook posts:

Well, maybe not Facebook. But you can find advice on web sites all over the internet by doing a Google search, or ten:

How to be happy: the Coca-Cola Happiness Machine

How to find the job of your dreams: Forbes

How to date: wikiHow

How to unplug a toilet in seven ways: Digital Trends

How to build a house out of old tires, straw bales, and mud: Mother Earth News

How to live on $5.00 a day: Forks over Knives

How to get divorced:

How to have the most amazing sex on the planet: Cosmo, who else?

How to raise your child’s self-esteem: WebMD (I actually like this article)

How to care for an ill and aging parent and stay sane doing it: HuffPost

Then there are the people, you’ve heard of them, who sell promises of certainty and happiness if you buy their book or attend their workshop or seminar or life-changing event. I almost forgot about podcasts and apps!

It’s all there, right? and more…so much more you could drive yourself crazy listening to everyone else’s suggestions and advice about what’s right for you.

Isn’t that what my hiking buddy meant by guidance?


Maybe not.

Broadband vs. Personal

Internet, books, workshops, and life-changing events are designed for broadband distribution. That means that their content is designed for you and everyone else in the Western world. You read or listen to the advice. You might even try it on for size. Maybe you spend a thousand dollars on a life-changing event that promises you’ll be happier after attending. Then, after your dopamine and other pleasure chemistry levels return to homeostasis, you’ve forgotten what you read or stopped doing whatever was suggested and you’re back to feeling lost or bewildered or overwhelmed. Am I wrong? You can tell me. I am just fumbling around here with some ideas.

I think what my hiking buddy meant by guidance is something more personal. She might have in mind a person, a more experienced, wiser person–something like a parent but not the parents of birth because most of us who long for guidance didn’t get it from our biological parents otherwise we’d go to them–who will listen to what’s on her mind. I think she was saying she wants a go-to person she trusts.

Don’t we all want someone in our corner who has no agenda other than our well-being and growth. I think what she was saying is that she wants the advice, suggestions, or guidance to be for her ears only or at least for her life only.

This is what I believe therapy is today, not therapy in Freud’s time. At least, this is what therapy is for me at this moment in time. You bring in all of your stuff. Then the non-verbal space between therapist and client “in the room” contains, absorbs, digests, marinates, savors, and explores whatever presents itself.

For therapy to happen, the client has to trust that the space, and the experience, is safe, that every topic, thought, feeling, emotion, fear, shame, desire, and fantasy will be honored, respected, validated, and welcomed. Then there’s the space between sessions where most of the real work happens.

In that sense, therapy is magical. Not hokus-pokus magical, but can’t see it and can’t always describe it magical.

In therapy you can experience the kind of guiding relationship you did not get growing up. When therapy is good, that relationship includes kindness, acceptance, compassion, unconditional emotional holding, and the freedom to bring into the open everything that’s on your mind and in your heart in the presence of someone whose witnessing of you and your story makes you feel heard, seen, and understood.

We therapists talk about the therapy process as relaunching, a do-over of learning to become a somewhat independent adult. (We all need people we can lean on, Mick.)

Social vs. intimate

In social conversations, we steer clear of risky topics. In therapy, we dive into them.

Fantasizing about marrying your father and killing your mother? Or is it marrying your mother and killing your father? Maybe not. Maybe Freud never meant to broadband his opinions. He certainly made significant contributions to our understanding of human behavior. Remember learning about defenses in Psych 101? That was another of Freud’s observations and theories.

My responses to my hiking buddy’s thinking out loud and this article arose from a curious defensive position. After all, psychology is my work. Hearing it called crap tapped into that tiny voice in my head that thinks it is too. By thinking about this conversation that almost happened and writing as honestly as I can with as much compassion and kindness as I can, I think I have more clarity about what this thing we call therapy means to me. I hope too, that her opinions and my thinking out loud has given you something to gnaw on for a while as well.

This is the space I was talking about earlier. Magical. Interpersonal. Personal. Can’t see it; can’t describe it. Can’t plan it. It just happens. When therapy, or a conversation, is good, it can feel magical.

My broadband message

Bad guides have their own agenda, be it fame, or money, or sex, or power. Good guides offer suggestions and advice from a place of wanting to help. Great guides ask questions that lead you to your own conclusions.

I would like to wrap this up with a positive broadband message. I would like to say that therapy is good for everyone. But it’s not. Therapy is not always the only solution or the best solution. You have to decide for yourself what is right for you. As scary as that can be at times, it’s the best guidance I can offer.

Life is an experiment and you are your own scientist. Chew on someone else’s guidance. If you think you will benefit from it, try it on and evaluate along the way. Is this still working?

Sometimes LOL Facebook posts are all you need.

So, hiking buddy, what did you mean by guidance?