Monday, April 6, 2009

"The Talking-Cure Capital, New York"

Maybe it's harmonic convergence, but the last few days have seen three important New York Times articles about psychotherapy.

All were inspired by the return of the HBO series, "In Treatment." Alessandra Stanley and Michelle Orange wrote critical appraisals of the series, but Maureen Dowd outdid them both by offering that our new president was modeling himself on fictional therapist Paul Weston. She dubbed Obama "the first shrink." She allows us to hope that the first might also be the last. Links here, here, and here.

Both television critics are thrilled that Dr. Weston has exited the Maryland suburbs and has landed in Brooklyn. After all, as Orange notes, New York is the "talking-cure capital." Stanley outdoes her by declaring that New York is "the epicenter of post-Freudian civilization and its discontents."

Surely, they have a point. New Yorkers have indulged in intensive psychotherapy for decades now, to the point where treatment has become a common initiation ritual.

I think, however, that it time we asked a Dr. Phil question: Hey, New York, how's all that therapy been working for you?

Given the current state of the city's fortunes, one must say that it has not been working very well. Several months ago our now-fallen Masters of the Universe were lavishing praise on their $600 an hour therapists. Now, not so much. See my posts on this topic. Link here.

Maybe that is not very fair. It is fair, however, to ask how well therapy is working for our therapist-hero, Paul Weston.

Here the answer is clear: not very well. As the second season begins, he is, in Orange's words: "divorced, displaced, and being sued for malpractice...."

Or, as Weston expresses it: "I hate my life.... It's broken. Every day, it hurts.... OK, I have you. But you can't give me what I need."

Now we know what his patients can aspire to. He can teach them how to whine about misery.

Alessandra Stanley understands it well. She says that watching the show is like watching: "the spectacle of other people unraveling...." And she adds: "People go into therapy to learn from their mistakes, then make mistakes about what they've learned."

Surely, she is right. Why, pray tell, don't they have a therapy show about how people get their lives together? Is it because too often that is not what therapy is about?

Most therapists, as Maureen Dowd notes, limit their marketing to touting their enhanced listening skills. She makes Obama the first shrink because he went to Europe and declared that he had come to listen.

Two points are worth mentioning here. First, when a therapist does not judge someone's behavior, that does not mean that he is a good listener. It means that he believes the considerations of right and wrong are trivial. It can also mean that he has no moral compass.

Second, most therapists do not really listen to what you are saying. They are listening to what you are not saying; they are tuning into feelings you have not felt.

When therapists say they are listening, most often it means that they are reading your mind. And we know that it is a short distance from mind reading to mind control.

The next time anyone says that he or she knows your mind but that you do not, I hope you will protest.

Many therapists have a chronic habit of not taking what people say at face value. That does not make them great listeners. It makes them disrespectful.

A great listener does not put words in your mouth, feelings in your soul, and thoughts into your mind.

When we are talking about what Obama meant when he said that he wanted to listen, we are talking about something quite different. In the mouth of an American president, they mean what everyone in Europe understood him to mean... namely, that he was not going to lead. Why would European potentates not have been happy to have the mantle of leadership dropped at their feet?

If Dowd wants to emphasize that Obama was more likable than his predecessor, she may have a point. But it is bad form for the President of the United States to run around the world repudiating his democratically-elected predecessor, and criticizing the country he is supposed to be leading.

Here how the first shrink expressed his feelings about leadership: "In America there is a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times when America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive."

That sounds like self-deprecation to enhance someone else's status. It is overly apologetic, weak and passive. And it certainly played badly back home, where people were listening carefully to the way that the president was degrading the country.

It is certainly not a negotiating position. Dowd imagines that Obama learned how to negotiate while being a community organizer. The problem is: community organizing is not about negotiating. It is about agitating, coercing, and dividing. Community organizers famously coerced banks into making loans to people who were not credit-worthy.

Skilled negotiators are unifiers. They seek out common ground through compromise and mediation. No one can possibly say that Obama has demonstrated those talents in the domestic political arena.

Today's Pew Research Center poll shows Obama to be the most divisive president in modern American history. Link here.

The first principle of good negotiation is to show respect for your adversary. Obama would do well to learn this lesson.

But, let's keep some hope alive. Despite what the Times reviewers say, New York is not really the talking-cure capital of the world. That honor belongs to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The good news is: when it comes to dysfunction, New York still has a ways to go.

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