While I was studying psychology, I saw a therapist who practiced Object Relations, a model of psychotherapy focused on the attachment to your mother or primary caregiver. The therapist provides a corrective parental experience, allowing you to take in the good breast to nurture your unfulfilled need to feel loved, appreciated and safe. With enough good milk you are ready to break free of old patterns that have stood in the way of developing healthy relationships. Unfortunately, my therapist was using the image of her breast as the object of my longing for comfort.
If she didn’t grasp why I doubted my ability to juggle life and work, she’d say, “Maybe you’re afraid I think you’re not good enough and I’ll turn away like your mother did. Maybe you’re saying you need my breast to comfort you.” Uh, no. Not at all. And it wasn’t just her breast.
There was also the blank screen. When I’d ask to see the dog barking on the other side of the secret door, presumably leading to her living room, I’d get, “Maybe you are jealous of the dog. Maybe you’re saying you want all my attention and don’t want to share my breast with anyone else.” First of all, no. Secondly, ugh. Thirdly, five years of those conversations did not feel like a fair trade for the new Lexus in her driveway.
She rarely veered from the blank screen approach, rigidly refraining from “contaminating” the therapeutic relationship with her personal thoughts and feelings. Great idea—if it were even remotely possible for two human beings to be in the same room without impacting each other. Believing that is like believing the Wizard is not behind the curtain.
I still bristle from this absurd conceit. It’s reminiscent of medical doctors, screened behind their theories, charts and lab coats, calling you by your first name while you are expected to call them “Doctor.” They’re deliberately taught not to get too close to your pain as though doing so would make it impossible for them to function. But that distance only increases the feeling of being alone with your suffering. In fact, research has proven that when doctors offer themselves as fellow humans, the result is greater compliance with protocols, better health outcomes and less litigation.
Occasionally my therapist would slip up and briefly lift her veil to share a personal perspective or anecdote. “I had children and a career. You can too.” Even throwing me that pathetically tiny bone made me feel accepted, even normal, rather than the f***ed up patient to her perfect doctor.
Robert Stolorow, the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, has written extensively about Intersubjectivity, which refutes the idea of the blank screen. For Stolorow, there is the therapist, the patient, and the “third field”—the entity derived from both of their subjectivities. Together our relationship creates a unique dynamic that impacts both of us. We are who we are through and with the other. This would inform my own work as a psychotherapist as well as my development of The Narrative Method.
The Narrative Method is a connective group experience that increases empathy and expands our perspective about what else is possible for us. It establishes intimacy, even among strangers. When others born into completely different circumstances identify with your insecurities and feelings of shame, you realize you’re not alone and that maybe, just maybe you’re not defective. People get better when their struggles are normalized rather than pathologized.
Don’t get me wrong, the one-on-one therapeutic relationship can profoundly improve both awareness and relationship skills. However, far more rare is the opportunity to experience a healthy family dynamic, which only the chorus of a safe group can provide. Consider the alienating experience of adolescence. No matter how much kids are understood by their parents they are still measured against the unattainable expectations of the outside world. In The Narrative Method we use the term “Cult of Culture” to capture the total onslaught of cultural influences: advertising, social media, film and TV, schools, institutions, the criminal justice system, even places of worship. It also includes your peers, siblings, and yes, your mother—who herself was shaped by the Cult of Culture in her day.
In TNM, we believe that depression and anxiety are responses to a dehumanizing society. We focus on the culture’s pathology, which allows us to deconstruct our stories and separate ourselves from what happened to us. One of my Antioch students, a veteran of the Iraq war, told me that his first month studying The Narrative Method had been more impactful than six months of therapy. “Hearing others share my fears made me see I’m not alone, not crazy. There is hope.”
Years later, I ran into my old therapist at an event and we chatted for a while, this time as peers. I told her how much I’d hated her breasts. “Why couldn’t you at least let me see your dog?” “Oh,” she flicked that thought away. “We don’t do that anymore.”