An op-ed caught my eye in the New York Times yesterday. The headline: In Therapy Forever? Enough Already.
As someone who has been in psychotherapy more or less since I was 17 years old (except for a period of one year, another period of two years, and another period of several months), and as someone who recently switched therapists after 11 years, and as someone who is fascinated by psychotherapy in general, I knew I had to read it.
Well, I read it, and it bugged me on and off all day. I read it two or three times yesterday and again this morning.
I read it the first time with shame. I asked myself: have I been in therapy too long? Are my problems more solvable than I think they are? Maybe I don’t really need therapy in order to fix them?
But if that were the case, wouldn’t I have fixed them already?
The guy who wrote the piece, Jonathan Alpert, is apparently a psychotherapist who has a book coming out this week: Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. It’s common practice for newspapers to publish op-eds by authors who have books coming out; op-eds are often marketing tools. But to me, this piece just smacked of blatant marketing. I went to the author’s website, and right there on the front page it says: dubbed “Manhattan’s most media-friendly psychotherapist.” Those are also the first words on his “About” page. Being “dubbed Manhattan’s most media-friendly psychotherapist” is a good thing? If I were looking for a new therapist, that would be a complete turnoff. It makes Mr. Alpert sound like someone who’s more interested in getting publicity and making a name for himself than in helping other people. I would want a therapist who thinks his primary job is to help his clients, not to become famous.
In addition to his coming off as kind of a dick, I take issue with some of what he says in his op-ed. For example, if a woman comes to him because she’s in an unhappy relationship:
…I ask what might be missing from her relationship and sketch out possible ways to fill in relationship gaps or, perhaps, to end it in a healthy way. Rather than dwell on the past and hash out stories from childhood, I encourage patients to find the courage to confront an adversary, take risks and embrace change. My aim is to give patients the skills needed to confront their fear of change, rather than to nod my head and ask how they feel.
OK, but psychotherapy is not just about solving problems. Some of us have lifelong psychological issues that pervade our lives, that derive from troubled childhoods, where we learned patterns that have kept us stuck, and we can’t be “cured” by antidepressants (because we’re not actually depressed) or by solving one specific problem and then quitting therapy.
He also writes:
In my experience, most people seek therapeutic help for discrete, treatable issues: they are stuck in unfulfilling jobs or relationships, they can’t reach their goals, are fearful of change and depressed as a result. It doesn’t take years of therapy to get to the bottom of those kinds of problems. For some of my patients, it doesn’t even take a whole session.
Fine. But sometimes an unfulfilling job or relationship or whatever is not the real problem: it’s just a symptom of the problem. If you just fix the relationship situation or the job situation, you might just be treating the symptom, not the underlying disorder, and the disorder will just re-manifest itself in another problem.
It seems like a very American, surfacey way of dealing with things. It brings to my mind Annette Bening’s character in American Beauty, this hard-working, high-achieving, outwardly perfect-seeming woman who just thinks positively and tries to ignore or bury anything that’s troubling under the surface. Don’t explore anything: just achieve and move on to the next life goal! Again, so very American.
But what the hell do I know. After all, Alpert is right in one sense: if your therapy isn’t working, it is time to move on. Things weren’t working anymore with my old therapist, so after months of trying and waiting, I moved on — to someone who’s more interactive, more willing to give me fresh insights.
Still, this whole idea about “achieving life goals” — it seems so American. And so late 20th century/early 21st century. People didn’t used to talk about “life goals.” I mean, life goals are a good thing, I guess. But the concept comes from our having moved on from a religion-based world. If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife — which I don’t — then you have to provide your own meaning in life, and that comes from setting goals for yourself. I think it’s a more truthful way to live, but god, it was a lot less complicated when you just felt stuck in your station in life and worked the fields until you died, right?
It’s really annoying to have to come up with “life goals” when you have no idea what those goals should be. What are my goals? I’ve been struggling with that question ever since high school, and I’m no closer to finding them than I ever was.