Friday, November 19, 2021

Psycho Therapy Today

It feels like I should say something about the New York Times interview with a therapist named Dr. Becky Kennedy, aka Dr. Becky. Given the rampant sexism in the therapy world, female therapists are often referred to by their first names. That suggests, among other things, that they deal mostly with children and want to make adults more like children.

I have hesitated to write about Dr. Becky because her thinking is so completely muddled that it is nearly impossible to get a grip on any of it. It floats hither and yon, offering up banalities and platitudes, punctuated with psychobabble. 

And, you will notice, it is all directed to women. It is about girl talk, about girl problems and about girl concerns. One might ask how American girls are doing. One might ask how all of the women's liberation is helping or not, American females. It is fairly obvious that the silliness offered by Dr. Becky is directed almost uniquely toward women and girls. This means that her approach is severely limited and is not likely to show women and girls how best to succeed in the world outside of the nursery.

Anyway, Dr. Becky seems to believe that she does not want children to be happy. Fair enough. Even fairer considering that definitions of happiness are all over the lot these days. To one extent, she has a point. If a parent wants children to succeed-- point that Dr. Becky ignores completely-- he or she does well to teach the child, not that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, but how to pick himself up and work harder the next time.


But, Dr. Becky’s thinking-- it’s generous to call it thus-- falls into the feeling trap. To her, it’s all about feeling your feelings, getting in touch with your feelings and not accepting that you are feeling your feelings. She says that this makes people feel alone, but she does not understand that withdrawing into yourself to get in touch with your feelings is a formula for aloneness and detachment and separation from other people. Even if  you get in touch with your real feelings, you have still pulled away from other people.

As I said, hers is exemplary for muddled thinking:

The more we focus on becoming happy, the less tolerance we have for distress and the more we search to feel any other way than how we’re feeling — which is the experience of anxiety. So what’s an alternative response to “My tower fell down”? It wouldn’t be me saying, “Tough, things happen.” It’s the accumulation of feeling alone in our feelings as kids that gives us adult struggles. So how would I not do aloneness? 

Through presence. My kid’s tower falls down? I would try to say: “I’m not going to rebuild it. I’m going to stay here with you”; and maybe it’s [sings] “Towers fall down and that really stinks.” Through my presence, what I’m doing is teaching my kid that when their distress light goes on, we want it to operate on a dimmer. If you think about all the worst adult coping mechanisms, they are an attempt to turn a feeling off, not an attempt to dim.

One is tempted to expound on dim-witted thinking, but one will refrain.

So, Dr. Becky talks about eating disorders and decides that what really matters is how it makes you feel. 

I used to see adults in my private practice who came to me with eating disorders or bulimia. I would say to those with bulimia that the way that vomiting makes you feel as if, wow, you’ve cleaned out everything bad in your body — not just the food but the accumulation of experience — that’s something I can’t offer to you. I can offer you something different: It’s dimming your distress — not to a zero, but from a 10 to a nine and then a nine to a eight and so on. Then you can learn how to operate in the world.

Bulimia, addiction, these are all struggles with emotion regulation. They’re all different ways of saying, “I can’t be in my body.”

Actually, these emotional gymnastics are not designed to treat eating disorders. Since Dr. Becky thinks that they show people who cannot be in their bodies-- whatever that means-- the truth must lie in the fact that they are too much in their bodies.

It’s less about emotional regulation and more about the absence of eating rituals. These get you out of your body and distance you from your tyrannical appetites. Does Dr. Becky not understand that family dinners count among the best ways to enhance a child's development? Apparently not. Obviously, in a feeling centered theory, social connection is ignored.

Anorexia is a different story, but the latest and most effective treatments involve something like forced feeding-- given that the condition is dangerous. As for bulimia-- the binge/purge syndrome-- one constructive approach is to step outside of your body and watch yourself as though you were someone else. Otherwise, a bulimic can film herself binging and purging-- experience which will do wonders for her emotional regulation.

And then, Dr. Becky suggests that we, or especially her patients, are suffering because they are seeking external validation. She wants them to get into themselves and to shut down their social connections. Hers is precisely the wrong approach. In truth, in our therapy-addled time, people do not much care about what others think of them. They routinely denounce anyone who thinks ill of them as judgmental. Here she mistakes the problem for the solution:

We’re living in such an external-validation-seeking world and parents are looking to feel filled up. That’s the only way they can show up for their kids. Am I building myself up outside-in — What do people think of me? 

What do people need from me? Or am I building myself inside-out — Who am I? What’s inside me? There are so many things capturing our attention that it’s hard to have attention on yourself. How hard is it to sit and breathe for five minutes? How hard is it to not be on your phone? There are so many things that are orienting us away from ourselves, and that’s the emptiness that we’re all grappling with.

So, naturally, she suggests that showing vulnerability is a good quality for a leader to have. This is mental drool, expounded by someone who knows nothing about leadership. Do you really believe that Dwight Eisenhower, in command of allied armies in Europe during World War II, showed his leadership chops by whining about how anxious he was. This is the sort of inanity that infests the psycho field right now. It is obviously intended to make men get in touch with their feminine sides, and so on:

Where parents make big shifts is when they empower themselves to think: What’s going on for me right now? What’s my feeling? What’s my worry? Why does this trigger me? What is it like for me when my daughter’s not joining soccer? Locating that makes you a sturdier parent, because you feel more filled up. Whenever any of us pictures a sturdy leader in our life, it’s someone who has beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and is willing to name them. That person is willing to say: “I’m feeling anxious right now. I’m feeling worried. This is what’s going on for me.” That allows them to show up as parents and to stay grounded even when their kids are not.

But again, Dr. Becky is unconcerned with socialization or with homework or with achievement. She cares about feeling:

That kid must be having a terrifying experience in their body to feel something that they’ve learned they should never feel. 

Perhaps it would have been better to avoid being distracted by all the nonsense about emotion and go all Tiger Mom-- teaching organization and discipline, aiming at good grades and high achievement.

With apologies for sharing such inferior thinking. But, one should recognize that this counts as serious professional work in the field of therapy today.


Sam L. said...

I'm sorry, Stuart; I couldn't find a way to comment today. Well, there's always tomorrow.

370H55V said...

Feminist math from The Simpsons . . . and this was at least ten years ago! Can anyone say it hasn't gotten even far worse since then?

America is doomed.

Sam L. said...

And by golly, tomorrow came!