See, Do, Teach

If you think that going to therapy means you can go to a shrink’s office, unload all your problems, and walk away a new man, you’ll be disappointed. You might feel better for a minute, but if you go home and do the same things you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.

Therapy involves learning new skills. The couple who’s coming in for marriage counseling needs to learn to listen and respond differently. The anxious person must learn to relax; the depressed one, how to keep going; and the addicted one, why and how to stop using their substance. Every person must be able to observe themselves accurately and compassionately. The greater part of all this learning occurs outside the therapy hour, far from your shrink’s office.

A surgeon once told me they have a saying in medicine: see one, do one, teach one. Only when you complete all three can you say you know the procedure well enough to do it on your own. See one means you watch someone perform a surgical procedure. When you try your hand at it under supervision, you are doing one. Teach one requires you to explain it to someone else, so they can do it, too.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this method, which can be applied with variations to almost any kind of learning. It’s not enough for me to tell you how you can calm yourself down in sixteen seconds by square breathing, you must do it. Then, it’s not enough for you to do it, you must explain to someone else how to do it. I have often found that I think I know something when I start writing about it, only to be confronted by all the ins and outs of the topic before I’ve reached the end of the page. Teaching someone is how you work out the kinks in a skill and develop real mastery. Then, if you really want to learn something, learn it well enough to explain it to your grandmother.

Learning a new skill in therapy is harder than learning a surgical procedure because you really need to use the skills when you are under extreme duress. You need to learn to listen when your spouse is yelling at you, how to calm yourself when you think you’re going to die, how to go on when you wish you would die, and why and how to stop using a substance when it seems like nothing but the substance could solve your problem. You need to be able to observe yourself accurately and compassionately when you are the most ashamed. That’s hard. It’s as hard as a surgeon learning a new procedure, not on a patient, but on himself, blindfolded, without anesthesia. To be able to learn to do that is going to take more than watching one, doing one, and teaching one. You’re going to have to do ten thousand.

This is where drilling comes in, otherwise known as repeated conscious practice. No one likes to drill, but a musician who hasn’t done his scales will not know how to play. An actor who hasn’t rehearsed does not know her lines. A basketball player who hasn’t shot from the foul line countless times will not score a point when the game is at stake. The idea of drilling is to repeat something often enough so you can do it in your sleep. If you’re ever going to be able to listen when your spouse is yelling at you, listening must be automatic.

If change is ever going to occur as a result of therapy, then most of the work, and the drilling, must occur between sessions. The anxious person must take up meditation; the depressed one, action; and the addicted one must repeatedly choose not to use his substance. Everyone must practice observing themselves accurately and compassionately if they’re ever going to have a chance of doing it when it’s hard.

Stop the Madness

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I have many role models, but two of them are of the negative type: people who have made mistakes I want to avoid. The first is James Nasmith, the inventor of the game of basketball; the second is Thomas Jefferson.

The reason I don’t want to be like Nasmith is not because he invented basketball. B’ball is a wonderful sport. I don’t want to be like Nasmith because he exemplifies something I want to avoid. The tendency to become oblivious to madness. Continue reading

Freud, Explained

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Of all the figures in shrinkdom, Freud is the most revered and reviled, the most quoted and misquoted, and the most influential and ignored. It used to be that every shrink wanted to be like him, now we want to challenge him and be as different as we can. Perhaps this is what he gets from being first in the field. More than anyone, he broke the ground for what has become modern psychotherapy, turning over centuries of assumptions about human nature. We should not be blamed for wanting to see what we can grow on this plot. However, it pays to sometimes go back to first principles and relearn the basics.

It is said that the great golfer, Arnold Palmer, used to start off every golf season by stopping at a country club, asking to see the golf pro, and taking a lesson. Most pros must have been intimidated to have Arnold Palmer as a student, for he was already a better golfer than all of them. Nonetheless, he would insist on a lesson, going back to basics: the grip, the stance, the swing, before going on with his season. He needed to remind himself of the fundamentals.

In that spirit, let’s return to Freud and re-examine the first principles of psychotherapy, many of which have since been distorted. Continue reading

Am I a Christian Counselor?

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I sometimes get asked whether I’m a Christian Counselor. There’s no short answer to that.

If I were a Christian Counselor, and I’m not saying I am, for that would be a short answer, I wouldn’t market myself as such. I wouldn’t think that would be the right thing to do. Being a Christian is supposed to be a confession, not a branding strategy. Continue reading

Nouns

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Back when I worked at a large mental health clinic, the receptionist came into the lunchroom and said a vampire was asking to see a therapist. Who would like to work with a vampire? Everyone’s hands shot up because vampires are fascinating. The receptionist must have liked me best, because I got chosen. She would show the vampire to my office and I could meet with her when I was done with lunch. Continue reading

Is Your Doctor Going the Way of the Family Farm?

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I used to be a farmer. I should say, I used to be a farmer the way farmers used to be. I raised pigs, chickens, goats, and cows. I tried to raise ducks and geese, but they flew away. I had a quarter acre garden and grew acres of buckwheat and corn. I helped the neighbors put up their hay, cut their wood, and tap their trees for a share. I butchered my own livestock, made cheese, and picked and pressed my own apples. I built barns, walked fence, pruned grapes, and fixed my own truck and tractor when they were broken down, which was often. That’s how I used to be a farmer.

That’s not the way people farm anymore; not usually. Farming is now a big business. They have big tractors, big fields, big silos, and big, big, big debt. Farmers are often employees, answerable to people who are not farmers and have never seen the farm; who sit in glass towers in the big city and move money around. I had a small farm. The most livestock I had at any time was thirty-five pigs, a couple dozen chickens, ten goats, and a couple cows. Farms these days will have thousands of swine, tens of thousands of hens, hundreds of milk cows, and seldom any goats; but they will have only one kind of livestock on each farm. Everything is specialized and ruthlessly efficient. Continue reading

Helping Brains Talk to One Another

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Here’s something that’ll surprise you. Other people know you better than you know yourself.

It surprised you, didn’t it? That just goes to show that people can predict how you’ll feel.

Upon that counterintuitive claim rests David Schnarch’s new book, Brain Talk: How Mind Mapping Brain Science Can Change Your Life & Everyone in It. Shaky ground, if you ask me. We all have our blind spots; but, there’s no way anyone, even your best bud, knows you like you do. Schnarch goes through considerable pains to say that introspection, observing your own thoughts and behaviors, is rife with errors. True enough; but knowing the mind of others would be rife with those same errors. Continue reading