The Talking Cure

(This essay contains many thoughts that I’m just trying to formulate here.  Thinking aloud, if you will.  I do not want to dwell on my personal experiences here.  Leave it to saying that I was trained as a Clinical Psychologist (at N.Y.U. in its heyday as one of the only graduate programs in the country that focused on training its students to do therapy far more than to be academicians/researchers).   I practiced only a little before becoming a professor at a small college (S.U.N.Y. Old Westbury) and was a patient for many years in a mode of therapy that, to say the very least, was unusual.   I talk about some aspects of this in another essay, Dreaming of Community. )  

I keep feeling that something went terribly wrong in the development of psychotherapy, that it could be a much more pervasive and more healthful than it actually is.  I have heard intimations, at least, that there are many sets of psychotherapists, of one variety or another, who do talk to each other, and I’m sure write papers about therapy.   So I have little basis to say that the theory of therapy has stalled, that it’s development has been largely aborted.


Perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps there are, burgeoning today, cauldrons of development of how one person talking to another can change that person’s life dramatically for the better.   Perhaps these cauldrons will soon pour over into the culture like a tidal wave of understanding how we can help each other.


I’d be surprised, though, if it were true that psychotherapy theory and practice is advancing at an ever-increasing pace, soon to help large numbers of people make better sense of their lives.   Certainly not if we’re comparing it to popping pills.  Seems like everyone is on something these days:  Prescription drugs even more than non-prescription.


Now, to focus somewhat, what I’m concerned with here is what I’d call, as outdated as the term might be, the garden-variety neurotic.  Most of what I’m thinking probably applies to a lot of folks who think of themselves — and most of their friends would agree — as basically “normal,” meaning not substantially more screwed up than anyone else they know — and along a continuum to people who are fairly off the deep end and either know it, or, worse, don’t.


And what I think is that an awful lot of people in this category could really use someone to talk to, someone who is profoundly “neutral” in the sense of being there not to be their friend, let alone their lover, someone who is there for the purpose intended:  to talk to, to listen, to ask questions that help the person think through their “situation,” their life, and, when it makes sense, to say things that help them to move forward in their lives.  And I think very few people have this in their lives.


It’s not just the pill popping that’s the cause of the problem.  A lot of what I’d call the downfall of shrink-dom is the simple fact that nothing devised so far can separate the honest-to-god useful folks from the charlatans and psychopaths.  I’m quite serious here:  the fundamental problem with talking therapy is that anyone can say they can do it, even put a few initials after their name that imply they’ve been “certified” to do it, but that doesn’t mean that they have either insight, empathy, compassion, or know what they hell they are doing.


So their are a lot of folks who call themselves therapists who are unqualified, either by having bullshit training (including those with fancy degrees) or because of who they are as human beings.   Almost anyone can put up a shingle calling themselves what they like, but how does one know whether they will help or just wrap the person up in a new set of problems that now includes the therapist?


Yet, at the same time, talking to someone about one’s problems can really help.  Maybe therapy should be kept that simple:  Giving the other person a chance to talk things out and then respond honestly and humanly to what they’re saying.  Ok, yes:  Checki oneself out as therapist in terms of the degree one’s doing this out of a need for personal aggrandizement or, worse, an exploitative streak in one’s own personality.  But keeping one’s own neurosis and ego as much out of it as possible, and working very hard to understand what it means to struggle to make sense of one’s life and to grow in the face of what we have to face in life, including our own personal miseries and character flaws, can’t one person listening to another talk make a difference?


I believe that it can.  I believe that it is too early to give up on the “talking cure,”  too early to abandon the value of facing the forbidden areas of our childhoods, to early to abandon helping people to face the most anxiety-filled areas of their current lives, to early to give up on helping people to find more hopeful ways of meeting life’s challenges than whatever neurotic solution they’ve come up with so far.


I guess I’m saying that I believe that talking with a “professional” can work, can make a substantial difference in a person’s life.   Sure, go ahead, pop the pill, see if it has the effect you were looking for without making you feel like you “aren’t yourself.”  But also see if there’s someone you can talk to about what’s troubling you most.   Be cautious.  Never suspend your own judgement about whether the person is really helping more than adding yet another dependency to your life, but I continue to believe that the “talking cure” has a more important place in a society as crazy as ours than it’s usually given credit for.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning