Figuring out psychotherapy (and my issues with it)

I should probably try to put into context what I wrote last time, or at least try to analyze it somehow. I might come to that (whenever…), but right now I´m much too agitated inside. Over the last two days I read Eva Jaeggi´s Und wer therapiert die Therapeuten? (“…and who cures the therapists?”), a book dealing with how troubled and dysfunctional many therapists are. Jaeggi, who is a therapist and a psychology professor herself, comes to the conclusion that in their private lives, therapists are often even more dysfunctional than the general public, and she quotes statistics about mental illnesses in psychotherapists which are – impressive. Also, she talks about how insecure many therapists feel within their own theoretical foundation, how unsure they are if they are doing any good, how they tend to believe that any mishap, any failed therapy is down to their own character pathology, such as narcissism.

That last problem is something I can relate to much easier than I´d prefer. When I read those passages I was shaking my head again and again because I couldn´t grasp why we humans torture ourselves with ideologies that help no one.  So therapy doesn´t work out. The therapist blames this on his own rotten character, cannot take it anymore and next blames it on the patient´s rotten character until the patient can´t take it anymore. Where he learned that? Probably during his training analysis.

Incidentally, I simultaneously re-read Dörte von Drigalski´s Flowers on Granite. It is the story of her own training analysis gone wrong. She gives a far more detailed account than anything I´ve ever written about Dr. Stoneface, but there´s a whole lot in her book I can absolutely relate to. She´s found expressions for feelings which I had no idea how to name. More importantly, she is not so zealously trying to validate her own point of view. As a consequence, she writes far more about her feelings of inadequacy, and she is arguing somewhat less.

Those two books taken together are almost too much. My brain gets flooded with things I recognize, with things I finally understand, with helpless outrage in face of the discrepancy between what my intellect and my experiences tell me and how my experiences and opinions would be judged by the people and ideologies I criticize. There is more outrage, and heavy self-doubts, when I think about certain other aspects of Jaeggi´s book, like when she talks about the power psychotherapists have, and how it can be used in a legitimate way. This makes me highly suspicious because – is it legitimate that they have that power in the first place? And isn´t that power very much dependent on the patients´ belief in their abilities? The idea that psychotherapists have special psychological powers against which the normal human being is powerless is a damn scary thought. It might be one of my greatest hang-ups when it comes to considering therapy. Interestingly, Jaeggi talks about that belief and sort of deconstructs it earlier in her book. So why isn´t she more clear about where the therapist´s power is coming from later?

I guess I will have to re-read the book with pen and paper and sort out everything I´ve learned and everything that´s coming up at the moment. I´m not so sure I even want to. The emotional turmoil tied to it deters me. What if I find out I´m completely wrong about everything? What if I find out I´m as vastly inferior to the likes of Dr. Stoneface as I fear in my darker moments? Then again, those questions are already there in my head, and I guess I´ll feel better having dealt with them.

I have even other hang-ups about going through this book here on my blog. Won´t everybody think “Get the fuck over it, your tales about Dr. Stoneface were already too much info, we understand you have some inexplicable personal hatred against psychotherapy, but that´s not our problem and we don´t care”?  Sometimes I feel like even in the blogosphere there are unspoken laws about how often you can talk about the same issue, or make the same point, without looking ridiculous/paranoid/obsessive. Which is sad because I wish at least on my own personal blog I didn´t have to worry how much I´m writing and about what. I guess I just am obsessive, what can I do. Ultimately, the purpose of my writing about psychotherapy is to make room in my head for other things.

Okay, kid, stop saying you´re sorry and start working on your chapter-by-chapter review…

I´ll only pick out what is important to me personally, though, otherwise I´ll never finish.

Chapter 1.

Jaeggi talks about her own view of psychoanalysis during her training phase. She describes her belief that psychoanalysts were somehow greater, more enlightened persons than anyone who had not undergone psychoanalysis.

I was amazed to see her, who was, for all I know, a mentally healthy and academically accomplished person at that time, fall for a belief which I myself am struggling with, have been struggling with for almost a decade (CREEPY!). One reason why I cannot let go of the subject is my fear that, maybe, psychotherapy/psychoanalysis is not as empty as I felt it was? Maybe I am a horribly blind, deluded person; maybe I´m just suffering from the ordinary blindness of every unanalyzed person, but is that what I want? Don´t I want to know more, be extraordinary? Did I throw that possibility away out of cowardice, the possibility to see deep psychological truths about myself and all of mankind because I couldn´t bear it? Did therapy threaten illusions I depend on?

The idea that I could be too weak for “the truth” has tormented me for years. (See also this post.) It has at least as much to do with Athena as it has with psychotherapy, and if I ever manage to write about my time with her it might become clearer what I´m even talking about. Clearer to myself, at least. Isn´t it weird how you can have a deep internal conflict and you´re not even sure what it is about? Makes you feel like an idiot when you try to talk about it.

What Jaeggi does now, and this is the primary reason why this book is so important to me, is that she deconstructs the myth of the enlightened psychotherapist. She shows how:

1) Psychotherapists are not superior or more healthy in their private lives than the average person.

2) Psychotherapists often experience deep feelings of insecurity even in their professional lives (mainly because of the manifold theories and the lack of definite feedback) which sometimes they cover up by abusing their power or by becoming cynical towards their own profession; at other times it results in a loss of their intellectual integrity, that is, they become ideologues and reject all ideas that don´t conform to their school of thought.

Another important thing she describes in Chapter One is that many therapists generalize their experiences with previous patients, even though their experiences are quite limited, which means that their blanket statements, no matter how convincing they sound, ought to be taken with a grain of salt.  Another very interesting piece of information when you´ve spent over two years with a person who seemed intimidatingly sure and convinced of everything he said.

And then she also said that the “truths” that surface during therapy do not so much surface as they are being constructed – by both parties. Therapist and patient might agree that the patient´s compulsions are the result of a strict upbringing, but that is basically a theoretical construction. I had very mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, it means that no interpretation, no diagnosis is ever a definite truth, which softens some blows Dr. Stoneface dealt me. On the other hand, that makes therapy an exercise in self-deceit. That way it only works if the patient doesn´t know that his “insights” are mere constructs. So basically therapy only works if the patient never thinks beyond a certain point. Or what else shall I conclude from this?

Maybe there is another conclusion, maybe there is a valid way of coping with this that allows both for therapeutic progress and intellectual awareness, but right now this passage just confirms a fear I´ve had ever since I was 15: That I would have to choose between mental health and complete freedom of thought. That my thoughts and my tendency to question everything would always ruin any peace of mind I might acquire through therapy. This fear was actually validated by my mother who told me that my second therapist had said to her: “Your daughter is intelligent. That might make it [therapy] difficult.”

God, that sounds so damn arrogant. Maybe the statement just means that I will use my intelligence in many evil ways to resist treatment and that my tendency to argue with people three times my age (and sometimes to almost win) would make it even harder than usual to break through that resistance. Maybe it just means that I use my brains to block myself. Maybe I ought to hope that I cannot win.

And yet Jaeggi´s book seems to tell a different story.

Chapter 2

I´d almost skipped Chapter Two because it was about the history of psychotherapy and I didn´t want to hear that old story again, at least not the fairytale-style “Once upon a time there was a man named Freud…”. Eventually, though, Jaeggi was talking about the cultural roots of her profession, that is: the priest, the shaman, the archaic healer, the magician.

It was in this context that she mentioned the “irrational” (she explictly says it is irrational) idea of patients that their therapists have certain magical powers, such as that they can look straight inside of them, see through them. She also says that therapy probably cannot work without at least a trace of such a mystification.

Well, now I understand why therapy never seemed to work on me. I always felt deep anxiety and shame, also anger, when imagining a therapist could just look inside of me and know me inside out. See all my secrets, all my feelings, all my shame. Laugh at my futile attempts to hide them. Mystifying him (or her) in such a way, which I certainly do a lot, makes me want to hide under some blanket, not open up to him. It fills me with distrust.

What makes this even worse is that I also have a tendency to strongly – eroticize such skills. I love the fantasy of somebody seeing through me, calling me out on my attempts to hide my feelings from him – but I do not very much enjoy the idea of being intimate like that with my therapists. I do not want any erotic tension between me and a tiny, white-haired man who talks to me as if I´m a complete brat. As if I´m a child. Or between me and a woman who could easily be my mother. If I don´t have any erotic feelings towards someone, I don´t want to get myself into an erotic situation with him/her.

Now, written down, this sounds very easy and I wonder why I had such hang-ups about it. Well. There is this idea that it is normal to develop a crush on your therapist. That this is even supposed to happen. And I thought that my feeling ashamed and disgusted at the thought of an erotic tension happening between us was me fighting my attraction to them. Attraction to people on who I was supposed to project my mother and father. Now I see that such an attraction simply didn´t exist. I eroticized the process of being mind-read by another person, but the idea of sharing such an intimacy with my therapists filled me not with erotic feelings, but, at best, with morbid fascination.

She also touches upon another very important subject. She talks about what we use psychotherapy for nowadays. According to Jaeggi, we don´t have to be ill in order to feel that we should undergo therapy, and that regaining mental health is not the only thing patients/clients aim for. They want to find their true self. They want to become authentic persons.

And isn´t this just why I entered therapy? Why I consulted Dr. Stoneface? Because I believed I was living a lie; that the me I believed to know was just a false self? Jaeggi says that the concept of authenticity merges medical and moral elements, and I tend to agree. Telling someone he has a false self, or even worse, he is nothing but a false self is not a just a moral judgment – it is a moral condemnation. It destroys you as a person.

Jaeggi says that while the health insurance companies don´t believe a self-ascribed “lack of authenticity” is a mental illness, “90% of all therapists” (Jaeggi) would love to treat it, in which case they´d tell the health insurance companies the patient is dealing with depression, schizoid PD or what not.


I take it that what happened to me was the rule rather than the exception???

Chapter 4

(Chapter Three is just references, so I´ll leave that one out.)

This chapter deals with peoples´motivations to become therapists. It describes that many therapists claim they had something like an epiphany. They knew they had to be therapists, full stop. Or maybe they were wavering between becoming therapists and becoming artists.

Reading this chapter was both painful and enlightening, because, bloody hell could I relate to that! Just that I, other than they, denied myself all those wishes. And at least when it comes to art, it was in part the “authenticity principle” that stopped me. Still does. I´ll need to talk about this in some other post, it is clearly important.

But, yes, even I considered to study psychology, to become a therapist. To many people this probably explains everything. I am too instable to do it, therefore I´m jealous and try to deconstruct psychotherapy altogether. No surprise I could never let my therapists succeed, cure me.  Sour grapes, case closed.


No, not quite. I do believe that rivalry played a great part in what happened during my failed therapy attempts. But I don´t believe that rivalry was one-sided.

I first heard of Freud when I was about 14. I was fascinated straight away, but there was also always a side of me that was repelled by the whole psychotherapy thing, even frightened. The possibility that my actions, words, feelings might be analyzed just like that, might be so transparent to anybody with the knowledge and skills of a psychologist – made me fairly uneasy. The narcissistic injury that Freud dealt me was not the possibility that I was ruled by an unknown unconscious, like he claimed – but it was the possibility that others could read that unconscious, mine and even their own, while I couldn´t.

Now, Jaeggi writes that many therapists believe they know a whole lot more than their patients in vital matters. I´ll just assume that their talking about a similar thing I´m talking about. They haven´t just read more books. They also have a deeper knowledge about what it is like to be human. They know the abyss, they know the heights of euphoria, and they have reflected on and analyzed all of it. For all Jaeggi tells us this is bullshit. While they believe in this self-image, or want to believe in it, they have the same problems everybody else is struggling with even though they´ve been in psychoanalyis for years, and they feel insecure about their own theories.

Then a person like me comes along. A person who competes with them, challenges their theories and is extremely scared of being seen through, found out, psychologically exposed. What ensues is a fight to the finish.

Okay, I´d love to go on but I´m completely exhausted. I might continue tomorrow with some more chapters.




2 Responses to “Figuring out psychotherapy (and my issues with it)”

  1. vicariousrising Says:

    The more I read of peoples’ bad experiences with therapists, the more lucky I feel in some ways. My best therapist (or I should say, the one who worked the best for me) turned out to be an atheist. I didn’t know this about him until about 6 years into our therapy (and this was 6 on and off years as I quit and rejoined therapy. The reason it came up at all was because I was struggling with the who “Higher Power” aspect of Alcoholic’s Anonymous and felt like the group was pushing their “religion” on me. I think my therapist brought it up to help me understand it didn’t make me evil to not drink the kool aid. It never came up again.

    But my point is, I never felt subject to his beliefs, maybe because his belief was to not to push people into his or anyone else’s beliefs. So, now that I think on it, that probably makes him a rare bird. My silly assumption would be that this is what all therapists should aspire to.

    I know I sound like I drank my therapist’s kool aid, but I appreciate him for precisely not ever making me feel like I had to. I pushed him and treated him with rudeness, and the worst he gave back was saying that yes, my behavior made him angry, but OK, what did I want to do?

    Anyway, I think therapy done right is great. But I am becoming more and more aware of how flawed the system is. It makes me sad because I have been helped so much and I’m not sure I could have gotten this far without it. Then again, I have walked away from things that failed to work, so maybe I am more instrumental in my healing than I give myself credit for.

    Ugh. I just hate that people parade themselves as professionals out there when they are, for lack of a better word, vampires themselves.

  2. Even I have recently had a good experience with the helping profession. I saw a coach over career choices, we ended up talking a lot about my current life problems and afterwards I felt both understood and motivated to work on some things. I think I trusted her because she was completely open about her opinions. She didn´t push them on me, but she didn´t pretend she was neutral. I don´t agree with many of her views, but her directness impressed me. Another girl who was also seeing her (it was group coaching) didn´t get along with her at all, though. Even though I liked our coach I could easily sympathize with the girl. She was dissatisfied, and I think the coach shouldn´t have reacted so confrontatively. Anyway, it shows how different peoples´ needs are.

    So, yes, I´d say I agree, therapy/counselling can be great. I believe a practical approach to one´s own healing is a very good idea. I guess I could have spared myself many unfortunate experiences if I´d had such an approach. When I first did transference-focused psychotherapy I merely wanted to explore my childhood, but the second time I sought it out precisely for the ideas, attitudes and practices which I now criticize.

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