Thursday, June 12, 2008


Modern psychotherapy began when Freud decided that his patients were suffering from forgotten traumas. His cure: remember the traumas and tell them as stories.

It turned out that this did not work, but it persists in what are called recovered memories and debriefing therapy.

Yet, as recent research and common sense tells us, the problem with traumas is not that we forget them, but that we are haunted by their memories.

I recalled this point as I was reading an advice column by one Karen Karbo. Karbo is a writer, a mother, and a horse owner, thus she gives advice in Redbook.

Her column was reprinted in MSN Lifestyle where I found it. It begins with a letter from a married woman who had had an affair with a married colleague. Now two years after he ended the relationship she still cannot stop thinking about him. For our purposes I will call her Callie and will call him Chester.

Callie also confesses that she is "madly in love with him," and that Chester broke it off because he wanted to stay married. Today, two years after the end of the affair, they are both working in the same firm, but he barely talks to her.

Callie adds that she has tried psychotherapy and antidepressants, but to no avail.

What does Karbo offer as advice? Nothing other than mental gymnastics. She advises Callie to spend 5 minutes not thinking about Chester; then ten minutes; then an hour. After a time, his memory will have vanished from her mind.

If Callie is having a problem concentrating on not thinking about Chester, Karbo advises her to try thinking about her third grade classmates. Surely, that will get her mind off of the man she is madly in love with.

Is this bad advice? Let's say that it is not the worst. If you want to try it, by my guest. If it helps out, more power to you.

The problem is that Karbo is unaware of the fact that it is devilishly difficult to find a mental exercise that will get you to not think about someone.

Why? Because when you are telling yourself not to think about Chester you are thinking about Chester.

Surely, we can do better.

First, let's reframe the problem. We do not know why Callie still believes that she is in love with Chester. It might be that their was a love for the ages. Perhaps the stars were conspiring against them, but let us not be too fast to assume that Callie is deluded.

She knows how she feels and she knows how she felt and she probably knows what Chester felt too. Her mistake might be in thinking that being in love means that two people must be together forever. She missed the lesson where we learned that during the course of human history the coincidence of marriage and true love is the exception, not the rule.

Second, if it was not a love for the ages, then that might mean that he did not love her as much as she loved him. In that case she allowed herself to be used, and this is surely not the most flattering way of seeing oneself. Would it not be better to think that he loved her or to think that they could communicate he would discover that he really loved her... or else, that she really loved him.

Third, if this was not true love, then perhaps Callie thinks that on top of being an adulteress, she was acting like a tramp. My guess is that she is repudiating this label by being obsessed with Chester. Better to be madly in love than to be a tramp.

Now, for the more immediate problem. Let us say that she wants to forget Chester. Let us imagine that she was dumped unceremoniously and needs to find closure, as people call it.

Frankly, I do not think that mental gymnastics are the way to go. A better approach is to remove all reminders of Chester from her life. This is surely more difficult when they are working together and might have occasion to communicate.

Worse yet, people, places and objects in the office can serve as permanent cues reminding her of her time with Chester. Did they meet at the water cooler or the coffee urn or in the cafeteria? Did they gaze longingly at each other in the conference room on the third floor? Did they hold hands in the elevator or share a stall in the rest room? Was any of it caught on surveillance video?

You get the picture. As long as Callie is in a place that is filled with memories of Chester, she will have much more trouble getting him out of her mind. Sad to say, but in her circumstances, a change of scenery, even a change of jobs, might be a good thing.

A lost relationship that occurred outside of the workplace is easier to forget. Someone who cannot get an ex-- out of her mind would do well to start by taking down all the photos of the two of them together, putting away all of the gifts he gave her, and giving away the souvenirs they amassed on their vacation.

If his behavior was especially bad she might send a box of them back to him. Obviously, she should also avoid the places where they spent quality couple-time. Whether it is a favorite restaurant or coffee shop, the botanical garden, or Grant's tomb... she should not revisit their old haunts. And she should not continue rituals that she used to perform with him: whether it is Sunday afternoon football or playing tennis at the local courts.

If you really want to forget someone, the best place to start is in you behavior, not your mind.

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