Defamiliarization

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One of the advantages of being a reflective eclectic is I can borrow techniques from other fields and apply them to psychotherapy. Some of these techniques come from surprising sources. Today I’d like to talk about something I learned from being a photographer: defamiliarization.

Photography can be a simple reproduction of the object photographed, or it can be art. When I get all artsy-fartsy with my pictures, I’m trying to enable the viewer to see something in an object that belongs to the object but she has never seen before. I‘m trying to cut through an overfamiliarity with the world that numbs us of delight and creativity.

The easiest way to do this in photography is often to shoot in black and white. When you look at a black and white photo of a familiar colored object, you can usually recognize the object, but it’s presented in a new way. This unforeseen appearance causes you to look closer and become more mindful of seeing. Suddenly new possibilities come to view. You might enjoy the play of shadows, the gradations of gray, and the stark contrasts that a black and white photo bring out. It’s funny how stripping things down to basics can enrich them.

Unfortunately, if you have seen a lot of black and white photos you can become immune to them. Black and white can become too familiar. Photographers have always got to come up with something new to stop people in their tracks. They crank up the saturation levels, adjust the tint, blow out the background, make something fuzzy or sharp, or find a new camera angle and frame things in a different way. However, they can’t make the new images so strange that the viewer cannot understand them. The art photographer has got to fit into a small window: familiar enough to be understood and strange enough to be intriguing.

It’s not hard to see defamiliarization at work in all the arts. The term itself comes from literature. The plot of a novel can be summed up in a few lines: boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy loses girl, they make up, and live happily ever after; so ordinary, you can see it happening every day. You’ll read a novel with that plot for 363 pages because the novelist has made it original. He’s added sparkling dialogue, unexpected twists, and quirky characters, all to keep you guessing. When you finish a good novel, you will have gained an understanding of the course of love as you have never understood it before.

Poetry and song do the same thing by putting in meter, verse, and startling vocabulary, thoughts you’ve had a million times before. This is why the same song is better in concert than it was when you heard it in your CD. The concert experience adds something new. For that matter, have you ever wondered why a singer or a musical instrumentalist doesn’t sing or play a well-known piece straight up, as it was originally written? He’s trying to make it fresh, so you can hear it as people first heard it when it just came out.

Have you ever wondered why some people, like me, prefer to live in a place like Rochester, New York, where the weather changes every day, from one extreme to another? There’s nothing like a new blanket of snow to make the world refreshed. Did you ever wonder why you’re sick of the same snow in February that you enjoyed in December? It’s gotten so familiar that you can no longer find the joy you once had in it.

Did you ever wonder why this person who you once fell in love with can do nothing but annoy you now? She’s gotten too familiar. Did you ever wonder why you get along so well when you’re on vacation? Just enough changes then that the relationship is renewed.

When you come to therapy and tell me something you’ve been thinking a million times before, you might think that going over it once more might not do you much good. Oh, but it does. Just hearing your voice say it, rather than your thoughts think it, may be just defamiliarizing enough to you that it enables you to look at the situation a whole new way. Then when I respond, you get another shot of defamiliarization. You see how that happens? The whole purpose is to wake you up.

To understand how defamiliarization works, you have to understand what’s happening when the opposite occurs. When you are familiarizing yourself with something, you’re taking it in and making it your own, making it part of the family. You’re fitting it in comfortably in your schema or world view. Once you have familiarized yourself, you no longer can do anything more with it. It’s become too close to you. You’ve lost objectivity. Defamiliarization gives you some distance, so you can see it more clearly and notice things you have not noticed before or have forgotten. When familiarization happens all over again, perhaps you fit it in a new place or have allowed it to change your schema. Generally, your world view becomes a little bigger then. You have more choices and more ways you can look at things.

There’s a saying in medicine: the thicker the chart, the worse the prognosis. That’s often true in therapy, too. The longer the person has been in therapy, the less likely a session will do him much good. Therapy also can get too familiar. That’s another reason I’m a reflective eclectic. I have a big bag of tricks, so that when one method starts to get old, I can try another.

In the interest of defamiliarization, let me conclude this post in a way I don’t usually. I’d like to quote from the master of making the familiar fresh, J.R.R. Tolkien, from his lecture titled: On Fairy-Stories. You probably know Tolkien as the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this lecture, he surprisingly talked about recovery.

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view… as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness…This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

Since Tolkien’s thing was building fantasy worlds, he puts in a plug for his way of writing as the best defamiliarizing agent since sliced bread.

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.

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Revolutionary

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You might be surprised to hear this about me, but I consider myself a revolutionary; not a bomb throwing, Uzi totting, placard waving, slogan shouting, manifesto writing revolutionary; but a revolutionary, just the same. What makes me a revolutionary, then? Only that I am always plotting, often fomenting, and sometimes initiating a revolt against the Establishment. I love nothing better than to subvert the dominant paradigm. Continue reading

How to Keep the Faith When You Don’t Think You Have Any

“Keep the faith.”

When I sometimes say that at the end of a counseling session, I get a lot of funny looks. I should probably explain what I mean.

People are apt to be confused if they don’t think they have a faith. They’re likely to misunderstand if they think I mean they should keep going to church or believe some dogma or recite some creed. People don’t expect to be proselytized or exhorted on religious issues by their shrinks.

While I sometimes think a person might benefit from some kind of religious activity like prayer, worship, singing, serving soup to the poor, or attending potluck dinners; that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying refers to something far deeper than that. When I urge a person to keep the faith, I do so because I saw something in the client that could help him. I saw faith.

Faith is often confused with belief, belonging, or trust; but I think the theologian, Paul Tillich said it best: “Faith is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern.”

Never mind, he didn’t say it best. Tillich said it succinctly; but to say it well, he should have said it in a way that could be readily understood. Let me give it a shot.

Faith is when you’re stubborn about something that really matters.

We all know what stubbornness is. Identifying what really matters is the hard part. When my kids were little, they’d get stubborn about not eating their peas. I’d say, you’re not leaving this table till you eat your peas. I’m capable of being stubborn, too. Is this an example of being stubborn about what really matters? I think not.

If I was super stubborn, I would have tied them to chairs for weeks and given them nothing to eat but peas. If they as were stubborn as I, they would have starved to death. I wanted them to eat their peas because it would be good for their health; but if I took it that far, I’d be undermining their health. They refused to eat their peas because they wanted to preserve their autonomy; but how much autonomy do you have when you’re starved to death? It’s clear that eating or not eating peas should never matter that much. A thing that really matters, a worthy ultimate concern, is a thing best kept indeterminate; something my kids could pursue by not eating peas one minute and eating them the next, and by me by insisting on the peas one minute and giving them to the dog the next.

Tillich had a term for when you’re stubborn about something which is not an ultimate concern: he called it demonic faith. If I had put so much faith in peas to starve my kids to death, that would have been demonic, indeed. To use another Tillichian term, I would have made peas into an idol. Idolatry is thinking something really matters when it doesn’t.

It’s easy to spot demonic faith and idolatry in things like addictions, violence, abuse, compulsions, racism, nationalism, and an enraged couple who are so intent on proving a point to each other that they destroy their love. It’s harder to spot it when you’re in its grip. That’s why it’s important to never lose sight of your true values.

You might say what really matters is to always be looking for what really matters and be stubborn about finding it. That’s actually something that matters more than keeping it when you think you’ve found it. Being completely stubborn about keeping something you think really matters will get you in as much trouble as I might have gotten in with the peas. It’s better to be always looking for something that matters and never being sure you’ve found it. The moment you’re completely stubborn about keeping anything, is the moment you are no longer stubborn about finding what really matters.

In other words, the way to keep the faith when you don’t think you have any is to be always looking for something deserving of your faith.

Or, as Tillich said, keeping the faith is to be ultimately concerned.

So, keep the faith.

What if We’re Wrong?

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What if a person really could forget the horrors of the past?

Yes, I know; we therapists tell you it’s impossible to do without paying a price. We say that you have a lumber room of the mind, a hidden closet in which you stuff all the traumas and memories you wish you had no use for. We say, in time, the contents of this room start to smell. House guests, looking for the bathroom, will open the wrong door and let all your heartaches escape. The closet gets crammed with memories, so that if you try to put one more in, two more are dislodged and tumble out at your feet. All the horrors will find a way out, somehow, or they will make life difficult if they remain locked up. There’s no end to the neuroses, psychoses, character dysfunctions, family dysfunctions, and general malaise you are subject to if you try to put anything into that closet.

Therapists tell you it’s impossible to be effectively rid of the past and want you to take our word for it. You have to deal with the past, clean out the closet, pull out every item in turn, dust it off, and find a place on the coffee table to keep it. Face your demons or forever be running away from them. Deal with it, we say, as if you’re a lackadaisical croupier and we’re eager blackjack players. Become conscious of the unconscious, we urge. And we would be the very people to help you.

“I don’t see what this has to do with me,” you might say. “I don’t have any demons in the closet.”

Every therapist would then just smile. It’s no use trying to explain repression to someone who’s repressing. You’re never going to get it.

But, what if therapists are wrong, and it is possible to forget the horrors of the past? Continue reading

Shame

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

We have no emotion that’s not useful in some way. Everything is there for a purpose, even an emotion that undermines its purpose.

I’m talking about shame. Its purpose seems to be to help us fit in with others. Shame, and its milder version, embarrassment, comes up when you violate a social norm which might get you expelled from the group or, at least lower your status. Continue reading

What’s the Best Form of Therapy?

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The easiest method of doing something is not always the most effective; but it is the easiest, so that’s saying something for it. Easy is more effective than the most effective if the most effective is impossible for you to do.

When it comes to treatment for mental illness, if I were to rank the forms of therapy in order of effectiveness, meaning how thoroughly and reliably they can solve your problems, I would put it like this:

  1. Group psychotherapy
  2. Individual psychotherapy
  3. Medication
  4. Reading self-help books

But, if I were to rank them the easiest to hardest, it would go like this:

  1. Reading self-help books
  2. Medication
  3. Individual psychotherapy
  4. Group psychotherapy

Continue reading

What Anger Really Says

Old Posts

I once facilitated a therapy group for perpetrators of domestic violence. The group was made up of men who had gotten in trouble with the law and were ordered by the court to attend. These men were not happy to be there.

It was our unenviable duty to teach them that violence is not necessary. We had help from what we called the Duluth Model.

Continue reading