Just in case you thought I was caricaturing talk therapy, along comes someone named Eric Sherman to prove that I was, if anything, being too generous.
In a New York Times column, Sherman recounts the way he treated a man suffering from macho outbursts of anger. The man did not know how to express his anger at his “nagging” wife, so he acted like a tough guy. He went to see a therapist under duress, because he felt that he had to appease his wife.
Not to be too unkind, but Sherman’s therapy ends up wussifying this man; it helps him to get in touch with his feminine side. Better yet, Sherman considers it an enormously positive outcome.
At the least this account shows why more and more men refuse to go to therapy, even with male therapists: they are disrespected by professionals who will try to transform them into something that they are not.
When the man calls Sherman, he asks whether Sherman is one of those “touchy-feely” therapists… a kind that he does not want to see. The man wants some practical advice for how to handle his anger. He wants coaching.
Sherman does not seem to answer the question, but in point of fact, if we trust his account of the treatment, he was a “touchy-feely” therapist. Thus, he seems to have tricked this man into going into a kind of therapy that he was not looking for. Sherman had no intention of offering practical advice. He wanted to unman his patient and help him overcome his Daddy issues.
Sherman’s first assessment of his patient is an embarrassing reflection… on himself
After a moment’s reflection, I realized that Michael reminded me of my critical, self-involved father, whose recognition I had always craved. I knew from years of experience with patients that Michael’s bluster most likely was a defense against feeling weak and inadequate.
Surely, it’s enlightening to know that Sherman has Daddy issues, but that he is in touch with them. As for whether or not Michael’s bluster is a defense against feelings of weakness, the therapist’s rush to demean his patient completely ignores the circumstance that provoked the anger, fails to estimate whether it was just or unjust and does not examine other ways of expressing it.
Call it… three strikes.
As anyone who has read Aristotle knows, anger can be sometimes justified and sometimes unjustified. It can be expressed effectively or it can be expressed ineffectively. These are primary ethical considerations. Sherman does not seem to know that they exist and does not care.
In other words, Sherman wants to get his patient out of his life and into his mind. It’s a staple of therapy, and it’s perfectly useless… unless your sense of professional accomplishment rests on your ability to wussify men and to make them dysfunctional.
If Sherman did not tell his patient that he was a master of touchy-feely therapy he was being deceptive. His own words make clear his approach:
Psychotherapy requires them to get in touch with their most vulnerable feelings. This is antithetical to the emotionally detached, action-oriented persona that they adopt to protect themselves. In order to feel in control and avoid their pain, they tend to throw their weight around, intimidating the therapist and making sure he or she is kept at a distance.
I understood the fear and shame hidden under his anger, because, on occasion, I utilize a similar defense mechanism — one with roots in my childhood.
Of course, this is mental drool. Sherman slobbers over the inner life of banal emotions while ignoring the individual before him and showing no real interest in the man’s life. He tells us nothing of the situations that provoked the anger, so we know nothing of the man’s reality. Sherman is, however, proud to share the insights that he purchased on his own analyst’s couch. Here’s what therapy gave to Sherman:
I got approval from my father only if I excelled academically. Otherwise, I was forever a disappointment in his eyes. So I became the perfect student, afraid of losing his love. Any lapse caused me shame. Then I became a teenager, and something snapped within me. Without realizing it, I found a way to detach from my fear and shame: by provoking it in my father. I picked fights with him, hoping that it would make him feel like a bad parent. As expected, this made him furious. But at least I was standing up to him and feeling like a tough guy, even if I was just a frightened kid.
It becomes more pathetic. Sherman does not think. He does not analyze much of anything. This makes him a more modern version of the classical Freudian therapist. He emotes; he feels:
Surprisingly, I felt empathic toward Michael most of the time. I could sense the pain underneath his bravado. At other times I felt angry and wounded by his attacks. Since Michael wasn’t able to talk about his shame, unconsciously he tried to stir it in me. The only way I could truly understand his experience was to feel it within me.
If the word “feeling” suddenly disappeared from the language, therapists like Sherman would be struck dumb. Trust me, you do not need any professional training to feel your patient’s pain.
Of course, the treatment was about breaking Michael, making him more sensitive, more vulnerable, more in touch with his feelings:
Michael slowly began to share his vulnerabilities. With great hesitation, he finally addressed his childhood. He told me that his volatile father frequently beat him with a belt. His mother, who was verbally abused by her husband, was unable to protect Michael or herself. Michael was never sure what he did to provoke his father’s wrath or when it would happen again.
Sherman then has an epiphany: he sees Michael as a man who has become just like his father. Still, this tells us nothing about whether Michael has grounds for being angry with his nagging wife or how he can learn how to express anger effectively.
A therapeutic apotheosis occurs when Michael, recalling a time when his father beat him, cries in session. If the purpose of treatment is gratify the therapist emotionally, Michael has succeeded, in spades:
The swagger he used to keep me at bay had faded. A new, softer Michael was emerging, one who could allow himself to cry. There was still work to be done, but for now, Michael had begun to confront his crippling father and his own feelings of inadequacy. In helping him, I had once again come face to face with my own.
Unfortunately, Sherman has not really helped his patient, so he will surely have to face his own professional inadequacies at some point in the future.
For all we know-- Sherman seems to have no interest in it-- Michael lives in a professional or social world where macho bluster is his personal signature. When a man who has always played tough starts coming across as a kinder, gentler, more vulnerable figure… he will surely provoke gales of derision.
One of these days Michael will wake up from the stupor his therapy has put him in and realize that he still does not know how to distinguish anger that is appropriate to a situation and anger that is not. He will now know that he has a choice: between blustery outbursts and whimpering into the corner. Which way to you think he will go?
Considering how bad this therapy is, I am not entirely surprised that my own submission to the same New York Times column was rejected. If you would like to see how I handled a case, check out my post called: Up From Off Of the Couch.