Mind Wondering

Curating Curiosity

Tag: psychology

What Do Therapists Really Think?

Therapy elicits odd reactions because, in a way, it’s like pornography. Both involve a kind of nudity. Both have the potential to thrill. And both have millions of users, most of whom keep their use private.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

I truly believe that everyone would benefit from therapy. Speaking personally, it’s as essential for my mind and spirit as eating healthy and going to the gym is for my body, and much more difficult than a Russian deadlift with no weight belt. This notion that people who are “weak” or “crazy” are the only ones that need therapy is utter bullshit. Would you also agree that only fat people should go to the gym? Or only people with learning disabilities should go to school? No, because that is something an idiot would think.

As a card-carrying member of the Counseled Crowd you’d think I’d be immune to these pernicious myths about therapy. But I can’t help but feel my sphincter clinch up anytime I’m telling someone I see a shrink for the first time. Afraid it’ll cause them to view me as “one of those people”, I seek to qualify my system of psychoanalysis…

“I see it as a workout for the mind,” I’ll say. “Most of the time, we talk about things that are going well and discuss the goals I have for myself.”

Underneath these words are the silent plea, “Please don’t think I’m crazy! Please don’t think I’m sad! Please don’t think I’m anxious!”

I’m saying it as much to the other person as I am to myself. Knowing you have multitudes and coming to grips with them are two very different things, and the gift of an introspective nature is thinking your self alternately cerebral and psychotic.

Meditation and creative endeavors tend to make me feel the former and mindlessly distracting myself by scrolling through news feeds the latter. Therapy seeks to reconcile these seemingly disparate aspects of myself.

Despite my years of proselytizing about therapy’s benefits I’d never endeavored to understand the mindset of the person with whom I was sharing my deepest desires and darkest secrets. That is, until I read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

In Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, therapist Lori Gottlieb masterfully constructs a story featuring as captivating a cast of characters as you’ll find in any book, each with their own Hero’s Journey playing out over the course of the book.

If you’re at all struggling with the myriad issues that come with being a human, you’ll no doubt see aspects of yourself in all of them. And by watching them struggle and come to grips with their own issues, you can’t help but be incepted with certain ideas about how to deal with your own. However, the real joy of the book for me was getting a peak at the woman behind the curtain guiding these lost souls on their journey back home.

The Wizard of Oz

A Therapist’s Thoughts

As someone who’s always been fascinated by psychology and human behavior, I found the inside look Ms. Gottlieb gives us of what it’s like to be a therapist (and someone in therapy) fascinating. Below are some of my favorite musings from her memoir.

What determines success?

If you’re like me, you’ve gotten hung up Googling CBT, MBCT, EMDR, and any other acronym that can serve to postpone picking up the phone and scheduling an appointment. But apparently the method or therapy is far less consequential than we’ve been led to believe.

The most important factor in the success of your treatment is your relationship with the therapist, your experience of “feeling felt.” This matters more than the therapist’s training, the kind of therapy they do, or what type of problem you have.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

I’ve often told friends who are thinking of seeing a therapist that they’ll likely need to go to 4 or 5 before they find one they connect with. In the future, I imagine there will be a match.com for patients looking for therapists. Surely Facebook could cobble together something with all of the user data they have.

Why do people go to therapy?

When Lori started her practice, she assumed the majority of people that saw a therapist went because they wanted to feel less anxious or depressed.

But no matter the circumstances, there seemed to be this common element of loneliness, a craving for but a lack of a strong sense of human connection. A want.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

This echoes recent research suggesting that millennials are facing a loneliness epidemic and what countless studies on happiness have been trying to tell us for years.

“Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Therapists Sometimes Feel Helpless to Help

While there’s certainly a therapist out there for everyone, that doesn’t mean every therapist will be able to help you. After all, they’re human too.

I felt increasingly fatigued in our sessions—not from mental exertion, but from boredom. I made sure to have chocolate and do jumping jacks before she came in to wake myself up. Eventually, I moved her evening session to first thing in the morning. The minute she sat down, though, the boredom set in and I felt helpless to help her.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

I found this insight into the mind of a therapist so relieving. We often give them deity status in our minds and make believe that they’re infallible, but the truth that they’re people who make mistakes and get angry, bored, happy and sad is the reason they’re able to relate to our suffering and provide guidance. It’s also why they don’t always know the right thing to say, “which happens more often than patients realize.” Luckily therapists have been taught how to deal with this.

I do what therapists are taught to do when we’re having a complicated reaction to something and need more time to understand it. I do nothing-for the moment. I’ll get consultation on this later.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

Who do therapists turn to for advice?

Where does this consultation come from? After all, therapists work in a vacuum and aren’t allowed to discuss the particulars of their clients to the outside world. Are they just burying the heads in a Freudian tower of text? Maybe not…

Consultation groups are a fixture of many therapists’ lives. Working alone, we don’t have the benefit of input from others, whether that’s praise for a job well done or feedback on how to do better. Here we examine not just our patients but ourselves in relation to our patients.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

For some reason, this was one of the things that fascinated me most about the book. It made me picture a group therapy session full of therapists all talking about the issues they were having with helping people deal with their issues. It also just made sense. Why wouldn’t a therapist consult other therapists if they were struggling to solve a problem with their patient? The advice of someone who’d helped a patient through something similar would be invaluable.

There are no right answers, only better questions.

One of the things that surprised me as a therapist was how often people wanted to be told what to do, as if I had the right answer or as if right and wrong answers existed for the bulk of choices people make in their daily lives.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

The value of asking better questions is espoused by many experts in the self-help space. One of my favorite multi-hyphenates (author/entrepreneur/podcaster/etc.) Tim Ferriss has gone as far as writing an entire book around influential figures’ answers to the 11 questions that changed his life.

In her practice, Lori has found the process of getting people to ask themselves the right question the best way to initiate change.

Therapists aren’t persuaders… We can’t convince people not to be self-destructive, because for now, the self-destruction serves them. What we can do is try to help them understand themselves better and show them how to ask themselves the right questions until something happens that leads them to do their own persuading.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

Social Media Ain’t Real Life

I imagine anyone reading this has hung out with a friend in a miserable mood or a bickering couple whose online lives show them living and loving it up. Depending on your own mood this can be both funny and infuriating to witness. But if you think your friend’s Instagram selves are a much shinier version of their real lives, imagine what their therapist thinks…

If you ever want proof that what people present online is a prettier version of their lives, become a therapist and Google your patient… I saw images of her receiving a prestigious award, smiling at an event standing next to a handsome guy, looking cool and confident and at peace with the world in a magazine photo spread. Online, she bore no resemblance to the person who sat across from me in that room.

Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

This isn’t to say you should start posting arguments with your spouse in Stories or taking selfies of shitty situations, but I do think it’s important to consume media outside the sheen of social media. Something that’s got a little grit to it. Speaking personally, I feel more in common with almost any character in a book than I do with the characters my friends play online.

This was certainly true of Julie, John, Rita, Wendell, and Lori, and the rest of the people in this wonderful book.

Can Psychedelics Change Your Mind for the Better?

One of my favorite books of the year is Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence”. While reading it I nearly wore the skin off the tip of my pointer finger highlighting entire passages on my Kindle.

Don’t let the length of How to Change Your Mind intimidate you. It’s a page turner and I breezed through this book as quickly as any novel I’ve read. It reads like three books in one: A history of psychedelics, the neuroscience behind them, and Pollan’s personal accounts having taken them for the first time in his 60s. A common theme throughout the book is the potential for psychedelics to enhance the well being of those suffering from things like depression, anxiety, and addiction, as well as allowing for “the betterment of well people.”

The book is littered with gems such as the story of Oscar Janiger, a pioneer in LSD research, who personally administered the compound to Aldous Huxley and Cary Grant. Later, Grant would credit psychedelics for ridding him of his sadness and vanity.

“I’ve had my ego stripped away. A man is a better actor without ego, because he has truth in him. Now I cannot behave untruthfully toward anyone, and certainly not to myself.” –Cary Grant

While the stories of famous figures were especially fun to read, the part that piqued my curiosity most had to do with the changes in the brain that psychedelics actuate.

Research being done at Johns Hopkins on patients suffering from anxiety due to life-threatening cancer suggests that a single experience with a high-dose of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) is enough to lessen their fear of death, with many people reporting that it was completely eradicated. Scientist’s believe this has to do with the psychedelic’s ability to quiet a person’s default mode network, the part of our brains we often refer to as the “ego” that’s responsible for self-related thinking and mind wandering. An over-active default mode network leads to obsessive self-reflection and negative patterns in thinking that are common in addicts and people suffering from depression.

Shutting down the default mode network for a period of time can be terrifying, as the ego will attempt to remain in control for as long as it can. But if you’re willing to surrender, you can experience a sort of ego death that allows for wonderful things to happen. As Pollan explains…

No longer defended by the ego, the gate between self and other is thrown wide open. And what comes through that opening for many people, in a great flood, is love. Love for specific individuals, yes, but also love for everyone and everything—love as the meaning and purpose of life, the key to the universe, and the ultimate truth.

What separates How to Change Your Mind from the rest of the literature on psychedelics is his detailed research and skeptical eye. His isn’t the conversion story of Allen Ginsberg, who, having taken psilocybin with Timothy Leary, “got on the phone and started dialing world leaders, trying to get Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Mao Zedong on the line to work out their differences.” His is a subtler shift. He advocates for the use of psychedelics in a controlled setting, with someone trained to not only help you through the trip, but also make sense of your experiences and integrate them into your life after.

One of the biggest benefits Pollan sees with psychedelics is their ability to tell us something about our minds…

This, I think, is the great benefit of exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness, the light they reflect back on ordinary ones, which no longer seem quite so transparent or so ordinary.

I don’t know what the lasting impact of this book will be, but I can say that I’ve noticed a profound shift in the cultural conversation regarding psychedelics over the past few years, and especially in the months since Pollan’s book came out. I myself am hopeful that these compounds can be studied more widely in the future and the benefits people of different cultures have been experiencing for millennia will be used to help change our minds for the better.

For more from Michael Pollan, check out his talk with Tim Ferris on YouTube here:

…or download it on iTunes here…

Michael Pollan – Exploring the New Science of Psychedelics 


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