Me as a lay psychologist, roles I enjoy and the reason why psychotherapy needs safewords

I´m spending some time at a psychotherapy forum, mostly giving advice to people who aren´t sure if what´s happening in their therapies is okay or not. I´m far more moderate than I am on this blog. I have some natural inhibitions when it comes to advising strangers about stuff I have an emotional involvement in. Still, way too often I do realize that there´s something important nobody else has said yet, so I bring it up. The amazing thing about this is that I constantly have to reflect. What are my personal feelings on this, can I generalize on them, what other possibilities are there, what seems to be accurate. It´s weird, but I feel I learn stuff about myself by giving others advice. I cannot make up my mind if this is a win-win-situation or if I´m living through others.

Sometimes in play people have told me they feel like a human guinea pig because I keep on asking them questions about how certain things make them feel. If you play with me you´d better kink on psychiatrists. Quite often I´m more curious than excited. Well, it might be an obscenely morbid curiousity that drives me in those situations. Still,  emotional reactions interest me everywhere. I often feel like I myself am a terribly unpersonal person, ideally in some kind of mental equilibrium, and I only ever feel or have opinions in relation to others or if I´m faced with some question. I read self-help forums for – fun? Fun is the wrong word, it sounds more respectless than I am. I read them out of scientific curiousity. When I told my college counselor, she said: “Oh, so you do some kind of field research?” Spot on.

I treat my own emotions as experiments, too. Sometimes I think I only resist therapy because I´m more interesting to myself when I´m ill. Not because it´s fancy to have some psychiatric disorder, but because that way I can learn something about those illnesses. I´m quite literally a mad scientist. On this blog, don´t I poke my own wounds most of the time just to ask: “What does this do with me?” and “How do those wounds work?”

I am ill. I have anxiety issues and possibly more. And yet I´m somehow convinced that if necessary I could be healthy right away. I sometimes think that my illness (not mental illnesses in general, but truly just my very own misery) is a form of decadence. Or a result of decadence. I don´t have anything to do, so I use myself as a human guinea pig. I need my issues because they give me some sort of justification to talk more or less authoritatively about those issues.

Even when I´m truly miserable (that is: I panic that I might throw up) it usually helps me to take a look at the emetophobia forum I frequent. Not because I get advice from others. I very, very rarely post for my own sake. No, most of the time it helps me switch roles. From the helpless to the helper. I reply or mentally reply to others. Sometimes I just remind myself that I don´t want to be one of them. I don´t want to need. I don´t want to be emotional. I have to feel really miserable in order to write an emotional stream of consciousness even on my own blog. But why would I post one in a forum? By the time I´d get replies I´d have calmed down anyway. I´d feel guilty for getting people worried. That sounds lovable, but it isn´t, really. I like to keep my feelings and moments of weakness to myself. I do it almost automatically. That doesn´t make you lovable. It alienates people.

What is it with me? Why do other peoples´ emotional outbreaks make me feel better, why does it help me to see their confusion ooze from every line they write? I guess I might as well ask why I´m me. I guess I can say for sure it´s not mere malice or schadenfreude. It don´t wank off over it. It´s more like reading emotional posts help me gain distance. Even when it´s emotions I myself share. Seeing someone scared distances me from my own fear. The moment everybody else breaks down is the moment when I suddenly come to life and take charge. I don´t abuse the situation in order to reach any goals other than the immediate goal of getting the problem under control. I don´t really have any ulterior motives like getting fame or gratitude. I just enjoy feeling alive and competent for a moment. When I give advice to frightened, confused and emotional people I´m being very, very selfish.

On some level this makes me uneasy. It sure has to come back and bite me in the ass some time? Shouldn´t I focus on my own feelings and talk about them? Won´t I be punished if I constantly try to avoid my own vulnerability?

Well. I do seem to have a need to be the helpless one sometimes. Otherwise I wouldn´t fantasize of submitting to someone so often, especially since those fantasies usually involve some kind of confession on my part. I sometimes think it´s a real pity I´m not a Catholic. Still, in those fantasies I do have some kind of control. Self-control. I subject myself to someone else, I try to meet his demands with stoical obedience. I don´t like to feel forced to do something, I´d rather make a conscious decision to obey. How vulnerable I make myself is up to me.

Then, there´s the other side. Moments when I feel completely incompetent. Who am I to give people twice my age advice when I can´t even manage to wash the dishes or even get out of bed? Still, if I correctly analyze a problem, is my analysis invalid because I was writing it at 4 p.m. wearing pajamas? It seems to make a difference to people. I think that´s both understandable and a pity. I think emotional detachment, problem analysis and non-judgmental listening are skills or talents like any other. They don´t guarantee that you will stay depression-free or have a reasonable sleep rhythm. Also, can you really demand that people should be able to analyze their own problems that way? It´s not like I´m not trying to do that, but if you were only allowed to use those skills on others when you yourself are free of problems, no one will ever be able to help anyone. Having problems of your own might be a helpful reminder, though, that you aren´t any better than the people you help. You aren´t superior as a person, you simply take up a specific role because you have some amount of talent for playing that part.

I think psychotherapy is a bit similar to submission. For the patient, naturally. You go there, putting yourself into the hands of someone else, knowing you will be vulnerable,  faced with uncomfortable things, but ultimately you expect to benefit from it. The way some people on those forums talk about their therapy experiences is so masochistic it almost makes me cringe. It makes me cringe because they don´t seem to be aware of it, of how obscene some of it sounds to me. And some of it just sounds like they´re in pain, groveling at the feet of someone who hurts them without benefit. It´s hard to look at, some of it.

I´ve often wondered about this connection between psychotherapy and sadomasochism and D/s I perceive. Is it just on my mind because I read something perverted into everything? Yet I´m by far not the first and only person to make this connection. Even Jaeggi says that the core of the therapeutic process is power exchange. I think it´s funny – she like most other people seems to have problems describing the therapeutic relationship, but when I view psychotherapy as a very risky form of D/s everything falls into place.

The problem with therapy is that patients don´t have safewords. They can´t switch back to a symmetrical relationship, they can´t leave their roles. When I asked Dr. Stoneface a question about organisational stuff or diagnoses or how therapy was supposed to work, the reply I got was: “Why is that so important to you?” If you´re lucky, this is just annoying. Most patients aren´t. Instead, they go to forums and ask what the hell is going on. Is this some kind of intervention or is their therapist just being an asshole? Should they leave therapy? Imagine what it would be like if patients could say: “Okay, RED! This is an organisational question and I´ll have no interventions right now! Just bloody answer me, as a patient I have a right to know about this!” And if their therapists still refused to answer, the patients officially knew they´re just being pricks! No more confusion!

The way it is now, it´s essentially up to the therapist how if they will allow two levels of interaction, one symmetrical and one asymmetrical. Dr. Stoneface could have decided to give me a straightforward answer, but he didn´t and there was nothing I could do about it other than leaving. And leaving isn´t easy when you can´t negotiate whether or not the relationship still makes sense. Because, once again, you can only be sure the therapist can´t help the patient if the patient leaves. How often would I have wanted to say: “Okay, Dr. Stoneface, I know we´re having a little power struggle here! But let´s get real for a moment: Does it really make sense for me to waste years of my life on this? Hasn´t this whole therapy attempt gone to the dogs months ago? Shouldn´t we just cut this?” If he had said: “Yeah, I guess I see your point, at the moment I don´t see how we´re going to get anywhere!” we could have parted in peace. I wouldn´t hold nearly as much of a grudge against him, if at all. There´d have been some kind of understanding. An understanding that right now his interventions aren´t helpful to me. I could never reach him, though. He always kept me at arm´s length. It is this that makes me so miserable whenever memories come up. The helpless position he put me into, the way he sabotaged communication. It took me years to figure out what exactly had happened there. I think one day I actually will have to write a book about this. Use myself as an experiment once more, and as a source for advice. Maybe. I´m not sure I feel like exposing my story to the judgment of the world, at least not with my name attached to it. And yet I profited so much from a person who took such a step. Well, we´ll see.

The way it ended, eventually, was so absurd. I used, yes, consciously used an argument to terminate therapy. I needed some kind of reason, not so much for him but for me. Some transgression, something that could help me say “okay, now he´s gone too far”. It felt ridiculous to me. I was shaking with adrenaline, and at the same time it felt ridiculous. I knew this was some kind of play-act, make-believe, from both of us, and yet it was impossible to talk about that. He never mirrored my resignation. Never acknowledged that I was basically aware there was some kind of subtext and instead tried to confuse me with regards to that, tried to make me believe there wasn´t. I wonder if he actually saw me as a person. A human being with the same abilities he has. There are basically two options: Either he didn´t see me as an equal human being, in which case he thought it was justified to simply “keep me under control” somehow. Or he saw me as an equal human being who had freely decided to undergo this madness. I find it hard to believe, but right now I actually tend towards the latter. If he knew I was somehow aware of the subtext, he might have concluded that I wanted this. He might even have believed he had something like informed consent.

If the latter is true, then he never wanted to drive me mad. He saw it as a mere game we were playing. Some of his statements, such as that at least part of me wanted to see him, make sense in the light of this view. If he thought I understood therapy so well that his confusion tactics wouldn´t destabilize me then the problem was an empathy failure on his part, not evil intentions. Sorry Dr, you won´t get more forgiveness than that. Actually, that´s still more forgiveness than I have to offer. Knowing what his perspective (and its limitations) might have been helps me feel less defeated, but ultimately it confirms my view that you simply mustn´t put people in such a powerful position. You can´t just assume patients know what they´re getting into, and you can´t just assume that therapists will know when to play-act or deliver an intervention and when to take a step back and straightforwardly answer the patient´s questions. It must be possible for the patient to stop therapeutic interventions without leaving altogether. It must be possible to part ways in a civil manner even if things haven´t worked. Scenes in BDSM go wrong. You safeword and talk about it as equals. In therapy gone wrong, the patient tries to talk about his discontent and he is told this is normal, a result of projection, resistance or a sign of his illness. He can either believe that or decide to leave. Even when he leaves, though, the doubts remain. Was the therapist right? Am I just taking the easy way out?

You leave, but does it leave you?










4 Responses to “Me as a lay psychologist, roles I enjoy and the reason why psychotherapy needs safewords”

  1. writingthebody Says:

    What a great post….I just don’t know. I am cynical about therapy – this is based on my own behaviour – I would manipulate it to get attention to myself and comments that I seek. Masochists (and subs I think) are like that. So we do mind games. I resist my mind game behaviour. I pay people to beat me, and chat and laugh with them as they do so….this is not great either. And is no way to have personal relations. I know. Psychotherapy tempts me, it tempts the masochist, the beast within….could I get her to hit me? Could I get her to abuse me verbally? Could I get her to spit on me? Slap me…touch me….the game is on. I know I must not do this.

    • I recognize a lot of what you write there in myself. I don´t know if you´ve read the story of my failed therapy with Dr. Stoneface, some of it is in there.

      I had fantasies similar to yours before therapy. It´s just that when I was in therapy, I pretty much ran against the wall with that. There was no real reaction. That, too, is torturous, but in a different way. There´s this old joke which is probably pretty lame but captures the situation fairly well: Masochist: “Torture me!” Sadist: “No!” Just that the no wasn´t explicit. I could never even be sure he understood what I both feared and hoped to happen.

      This whole experience made me extremely miserable. It made me dislike myself even more, feel like I was something too repulsive to be worthy of a reaction. I can only recommend that you protect yourself from that. I was a cynic, too, but that didn´t really help. Cynics are vulnerable as well.

      I´d understand if my description here appealed to you on some level. If that should be so, I won´t hold it against you. It has similar effects on me sometimes. Still, the suffering I experienced wasn´t cathartic in any way. It´s more like a constant, dull pain that´s always somewhere in the background and demoralizes me. The suffering I got was certainly not what I hoped it to be.

      • writingthebody Says:

        I am not surprised actually – if any of the therapy breaks through, and it has some chance because to turn up for it means you want it to – then it just hurts you…I am sorry all the same. I would prefer to have heard that it did help… no, I know that cynicism is no protection and eventually no help in life.

  2. I´m not sure I wanted it. I thought I had to. Well, maybe I also wanted it on some level. I think I was in a state of mind where I very much yearned to be freed from myself. Undergoing therapy with a person who intimidated me from the start was ultimately an act of self-destruction. It´s a pity he went along with that.

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