An interpretation of Freud
Long considered a sexist dinosaur with a cocaine habit and some bizarre ideas—does anyone believe that little boys literally fear castration, want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers?—Sigmund Freud is enjoying something of a renaissance.
As Oliver Burkeman recently outlined, the therapy Freud invented, psychoanalysis, is at last gaining some much-needed empirical support, while at the same time the default treatment on offer in the U.K., quick fix, symptom-focussed cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), is increasingly looking like some sort of snake oil.
CBT appeals to our common sense. But common sense isn't as common as we'd like to believe.
Freud’s revelation was that we are not necessarily always logical, rational beings making optimal choices as we navigate through life’s vagaries, that we are in fact to a large extent strangers to ourselves.
Freud’s influence was far-reaching and profound. But he was a flawed character. You get the feeling he started to believe in his own myth. Patients often had to fit into his theories rather than the other way round. Any dissent might be met by indignant harrumphing or an ended friendship. He was capable of exploiting his position as a white male authority figure for personal ends. His work was sometimes more to do with furthering the legend of Sigmund Freud than with healing.
Some of his ideas and speculative musings have great metaphorical and symbolic value, yet he invited ridicule by insisting on speaking in absolutes and the rigid certainties of hard science. He was somewhat obsessional, detached, and ironically perhaps not so much of a people person, once writing, “I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience, most of them are trash.” The best they could hope for was “common unhappiness.” In photographs, his facial expressions run the gamut from utter foreboding to grim disdain.
Freud claimed psychoanalysis worked. He would identify unconscious motivations and unhelpful patterns, explain them to the grateful patient and, thus fortified, the patient would make better choices going forward. Except that very often they didn’t.
Today’s therapists who work at any depth will, like Freud, want to uncover your blueprint, your patterns, your unconscious processes. They might explore your childhood, interpret significant memories, analyse your dreams, which for Freud were the “royal road” to the unconscious. But they know that, while self-knowledge is helpful, it only takes a client so far. Lasting change and healing comes from the heart as well as the head, through acceptance, support and love. Research shows it is the therapeutic relationship itself which heals.
Good therapists are not inflated with their own importance, nor blinded by their own certainties. They treat clients ethically, not just because there are codes of ethics to abide by, but because ethical therapy is inherently good therapy. Above all, they are fully engaged with the client, noticing what is happening between them, and always working in partnership with them, in their best interests, rather than lording over them as they lie on the couch, prostrate and exposed (whether as a client or a therapist, I prefer to sit chair to chair and eye to eye). A good therapist cares.
It’s not enough to know and be known. To thrive in this life it helps, too, to love and be loved.
Happy new year?
“Happy new year!”
Oh yeah? Is that a statement of fact, because a cursory glance at the news headlines, or the struggles in the lives of those nearest and dearest to us, would suggest otherwise.
Or perhaps it’s a command. Happy people are so much easier to deal with. Governments love the idea of happiness, because if they can inveigle the electorate into believing they’re happy—in a “musn’t grumble”/”we’re all in this together” kind of way—people are less likely to notice if they’re victims of a deeply unfair social order (and less likely to vote for the opposition). “Happy” can look a lot like “placid,” “compliant” or “easy to control.” Easier for governments to paste over the distress they cause with smiley-face PR rather than creating the best conditions for happiness such as an egalitarian, truly democratic society with high levels of social capital and low levels of inequality.
What’s that you say? “Happy new year” is neither a fact nor a command, but merely a simple wish—a hope from a friend who cares that tomorrow will be better than yesterday?
Ah OK, I get it now. You want me, you and everyone to be happier in 2016, yes? Who doesn’t want to be happier? And that modest goal is certainly achievable. The happiness industry is there to serve your needs. It will all too happily (!) offer you antidepressants, cognitive behavioural therapy, workshops, lectures, self-help books, positive-thinking homilies, and endless research studies into what makes us happy.
What makes us happy?
• Harvard psychiatrist and Zen priest Robert Waldinger recently revealed the fruits of a 75-year study: It is close relationships—with an emphasis on quality rather than quantity, including a good marriage—that make for a happy life.
• A recent large longitudinal study in Scotland suggests that men who haven’t made progress in their careers by the age of 27 will be less happy than those who have, although rather obviously it’s perhaps less the job that that’s making them happy than the circumstances that helped them to land it: a good childhood, good education, good opportunities, a good environment.
• Being playful, mindful, forgiving and compassionate—and getting the basics right like diet, exercise and sleep—these are all good daily, tried-and-tested practices for happiness, as is cultivating a stance of gratitude.
For “positive psychology” evangelists like dog-torturer turned U.S. Army dark arts coach Martin Seligman, happiness is simply a choice. It is possible willfully to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, to filter out anything unseemly from your senses, to engineer a state of blissful ignorance.
More to life than happiness
But is happiness really what we’re after? However much we might pretend otherwise, human existence is generally more like a Greek tragedy than a Richard Curtis movie, and the sooner we accept that, the better off we'll be.
There is darkness in the world. There is darkness, too, within. In the book “Going Sane,” Adam Phillips argues that in striving for what he calls “superficial sanity”—a sanitized kind of happiness based on conformity—we cover up our essential, vital, passionate, creative, true selves and feel dead inside. As Winnicott put it: “We are poor indeed if we are only sane.” The influential British therapist said he started out “sane” but through analysis and self-analysis was able to reclaim some measure of “insanity.”
Sanitized “sanity” requires a severance of the connection with our true self and the things that make us distinct: our philosophy, passion, desires, play, creativity, quirks and eccentricities. Writes Phillips: “Sanity of a kind is recruited, is all too easily recruitable, as part of modern armoury. What is being pursued when sanity is pursued, what is done in the name of sanity, can be a self-blinding.” This kind of sanity diminishes us. Such“sane” shiny happy people can be somewhat comic, ever-compliant and rather boring to be around. In an old cartoon in The New Yorker, one happy couple leans forward at a dinner party and tells the other happy couple: “Did we ever tell you about the time we had an overdue library book?”
3 steps for 2016
1. If your rational, sensible self wants to make some new year’s resolutions, let it. But you know it’s going to be a rough ride, right? Your unconscious selves, those mischievous gremlins in the machine that like chocolate and Netflix and loathe exercise and hard work, will sabotage you at every opportunity. Why don’t new year’s resolutions stick? Because on some level, we don’t want them to. So maybe it’s time to call a team meeting of all the disparate players on your struggling football team and make sure all the voices get heard. Ask yourself what you really want. A good integrative/existential therapist can help; start your search here (or contact me).
2. Widen the circle. Abraham Maslow said we’re either stepping forward into growth, or stepping backward into safety. Sometimes we really do need to make ourselves safe, to marshall our defences, to find ways of soothing ourselves, to retreat beneath our own, unique version of some metaphorical comfort blanket. But from this secure base, now and again we need to a few things that to another person might be nothing but to us feel like giant symbolic risks. Try something new, make more social connections, have some new experiences. Put yourself in situations where you feel a little out of your depth, dumb, or afraid.
3. Get in touch with your own madness rather than disowning it. There’s more to life than just pursuing happiness. There's more to you than the highly-edited, socially acceptable version. Listen to your heart's desires, however odd and unfashionable they may seem to others. A worthy goal might be to embrace all aspects of your self, and accept and honour the full range of human experience. To live more authentically, more meaningfully, more fully rather than attempting to adhere to some imagined approved standards of a happy life.
Here’s to a mad, sad, bad, glad new year!
“I believe it will have become evident why, for me, adjectives such as happy, contented, blissful, enjoyable, do not seem quite appropriate to any general description of this process I have called the good life, even though the person in this process would experience each one of these at the appropriate times. But adjectives which seem more generally fitting are adjectives such as enriching, exciting, rewarding, challenging, meaningful. This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-fainthearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one's potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. Yet the deeply exciting thing about human beings is that when the individual is inwardly free, he chooses as the good life this process of becoming.”
1. What is a psychopath?
John Barton is a counsellor, psychotherapist, blogger and writer with a private practice in Marylebone, Central London. To contact, click here.