Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Therapy Makes You Miserable

It’s a radical notion in a culture that worships youth, but David Brooks asked his septuagenarian readers to share the wisdom they had gained from their human experience.

If he’s trying to bring back filial piety, he gets extra credit.

Brooks wasn’t doing a scientific study. He wasn’t doing a survey. He wasn't conducting an experiment.

And he did not offer a theoretical disquisition.

Perhaps for these reasons, I find his observations compelling. I was intrigued, though not surprised, to discover that older people consider that it is smarter to work within institutions than outside them.

Being part of a company or a profession is better than being an outlier or a rebel. People who set themselves against the world end up accomplishing little.

It probably won't, but it’s a message that ought to be sent out to the Occupiers.

Most striking to me were these two great paragraphs:

“There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives. It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape.

“Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.”

In these brief remarks Brooks has captured the fundamental reason why therapy does not work.

Traditional therapy teaches people to introspect, to ruminate, and to self-examine. It makes them intrepid observers of the actions within their own minds.

Brooks calls them ruminators. If you ask where they learned such a bad habit, the answer must be that they learned it in therapy.

If you learn to focus on negative emotions, you will feel worse. If you make a habit of introspecting, exploring your mind, and obsessing about your emotions, it’s going to make you miserable.

For the alternative to the bad habits inculcated by therapy Brooks coins the phrase: “strategic self-deceivers.”

I am not thrilled by the phrase, but you can’t have everything.

His concept is correct. Brooks is saying that when normal people suffer traumas, setbacks, pain and failure, they do not obsess about it. They do not think it’s a meaningful experience.

They do what normal people did until Freud convinced them that forgetting was repression and that repression was making them neurotic.

Normal people forget traumas, failures and disappointments. When something bad happens, they put it behind them.  They do not try to integrate bad events into a new personal narrative.

I wouldn’t call it self-deception. I would call it a smart way to improve your life.


David Foster said...

Arthur Koestler said that if a centipede had to think about which leg to move first, he'd never be able to move at all.

OTOH, a person needs to engage in a certain level of self-examination in order to avoid falling prey to confirmation bias or just to excessive arrogance.

Katielee4211 said...

I've always had that thought process, not that you don't self-examine at all, but don't dwell and obsess about it.
I've often wondered how many traumatized people have become traumatized by their therapists? How do you move on if you keep revisiting the problem? Or they just give them a pill to make it all OK.
Labels are dangerous too, I think. You eventually become what you are told(repeatedly), or think, you are.