Thursday, June 23, 2011

Myself and not myself: Bringing back skepticism.

The postpartum depression diagnosis introduced me to the world of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. I went, curious but reluctant. I associate psychology with Freud and Jung, not bad men, but perhaps superficial men.

On the other hand, I know self-knowledge has always been an important part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we do not know our true condition, how can we undergo that transformation, that metanoia, from misery into joy? So much of our human suffering is rooted in isolation: from others, from creation, and from ourselves. Redemption begins when the divine life bridges those chasms between us: knowledge and love of all that the Father has created makes us at once more like God in his knowing and in his joy. Depression healed.

And so, I began the sessions with a secular psychologist with a mixture of apprehension and hope. At that point in my struggle, my basic instinct was, "Why the heck not? Self-knowledge tells me: I need help!" I had no idea what to expect or what that help would look like.

The beginning sessions were familiar: Know thyself.

Naming my demons (only figurative demons; she is, after all, a secular psychologist!) was the order of the day. Anger, envy, self-hatred... We examined various situations I found myself in, and I tried to uncover hidden emotions or "narratives" that were expressing themselves in depressive thoughts and behaviors.

All good. It was even fun to spend an hour every week just examining my conscience, even if the doctor couldn't absolve my sins.

But then.

I began to notice that we were hitting a wall. Every time I would regale her with a story of angry feelings, she would listen and say, "Good for you!" I would mention that I told my husband I felt angry: "Good for you!" Hidden anger was bad. Expressing my anger was good, she explained, because I would name it for what it was. It would no longer have the power to depress me or manifest itself in chronic pain.

Then she counseled me: "You need to tell Todd (or person x, y, or zed) that you feel angry. Don't try to explain it or fix it. Just tell him and ask him to know your anger with you. Be transparent."

"I don't want to always be angry," I said. "I hope to someday receive all these stresses of life with more grace. More graciously."

She smiled and fretted, "Oh, dear."

The message was: This anger is your self. Receive yourself. Express yourself. Do not allow anyone or any religion or any code to suggest that your experience of yourself is untrue or deficient. It is what it is. Be. Any attempt to transform yourself will mean more pain, more depression.

Again, this all sounded vaguely familiar. There is that strain in Christian thought, too: God accepts us as we are. We come to him broken, and he sees our brokenness and has mercy.

She, "Have mercy on yourself, just like you believe God has mercy on you."

My self. My experience. My truth.

So, I bit the apple. I took that fruit and ate it.

It was death. Not to be too dramatic here, but that self-affirmation almost literally the death of all love. Once I started down that path of "express your anger," "receive all your emotions as gifts," I felt great. It felt good to just let it all out, like a 3-year-old at the end of a long grocery trip. "You make me feel trapped! I feel rage! Don't take this personally, it's not your fault, but dammit am I angry with you!"

That is not love.

You see, I began to notice that the "truth of my experience" was that I expressed my feelings and let it all just hang out precisely when love called for discretion. The truth of my experience was that I stayed silent and failed to express joy exactly at those moments when charity demanded I speak. The truth of my experience of self is that myself is unreliable, weak, and destructive. Left to myself, everything I touch will turn sour, because I touch with both love and hate, joy and anger, healing and cruelty.

Because myself is fallen. That is the truth of myself. My sweet, lovable, sister Ass self --and I do love myself, both with a perverse and a true love-- is in desperate need of more than herself.

I returned to the psychologist's office one last time before we moved away forever.

I gave her a biography of Teresa of Avila, who knew both light and darkness and chose the light. And I said, "I believe suffering is an essential part of the human condition. I cannot escape it."

"Good," she smiled.

"And I believe I can be changed. I can in future receive suffering more graciously because of the life that is in me."

"Oh, dear," she fretted and shook her head. We parted in disagreement. I'm sure she's expecting to land right back on another leather couch within months. I may. I may not.

I do not believe those hours on her couch (yes! I actually sat on a leather couch!) were wasted. In fact, in a sense I found myself. But instead of naming myself holy, I named myself wretched. Along with acceptance of my wretchedness, I rediscovered my true and unfailing hope. The fulfillment of hope is not in me, but in something outside of myself.

How is it that any therapy --without reference to repentance or transformation-- could touch and heal the effects of that original wound in my soul?

I reject the idea that myself is immutable, unchanging, something I can abase only at my peril. I am more than pop-psychology can affirm; the psychologist has no idea how fearfully and wonderfully I am made. I turn instead to the Author of myself, who is not myself. He is greater. He is the awful, awesome, loving Father, who alone is perfect and who alone is holy. The eternal Word, the Logos, the Crucified One who lives and through whom all things have their being. The Paracletus, the Comforter, and Spirit. The three in one and one in three.

I reject self-actualization in favor of being a creature. I'd much rather my being be written by him --a God like the God of the Scriptures-- than by me. A healthy self-skepticism alone allows me to freely--and without any fear--submit once again to his healing touch.

A self-skeptic's Bibliography:

Frederica Matthews-Green, "Self and Skepticism" podcast

Peggy Noonan, John Paul the Great

Blaise Pascal, The Pensees


Maren said...

I love this post. I’ve been to my share of counseling too, and seen the results of other people’s time in counseling, and it often seems to me that what often gets left out is the transformative power of forgiveness. To forgive someone is a grace. No one forgives without God (even if a person doesn’t believe in God, it is still through God that he is able to forgive!). Forgiveness is really hard. It often is an act of the will, and, often enough, it takes a lot of time before a person is able to achieve that act of the will, before they are able to accept that grace. I think that, not really believing in grace, what secular counseling often aims for is just learning how to live with the anger.

I do think that acknowledging and expressing anger is hugely important, and counseling is great for that, but I also think that the two people who most need to hear that expression of anger are always yourself and God. We almost always have to feel and acknowledge the full force of our anger and hurt before we can really begin to forgive. We do need to know ourselves, but upon knowing ourselves, we then need to reach out to God and ask for the grace of forgiving. Expressing our anger to the person who has hurt us can be helpful. It can even lead to positive changes in a relationship, but it cannot become an end in itself, otherwise we lose both ourselves and the other person. We lose ourselves because as you said, anger then becomes a person’s very self. We lose the other person, because we make him or her first into a villain and then into a whipping boy.

I find that I think of counseling as being like a lone left shoe. It gets us part of the way to walking where we need to go, and it can prepare us for putting on the right shoe (i.e., for receiving grace), but by itself we just end up kind of limping. God’s grace is the complete pair of shoes that actually allows us to walk, and run, jump, and play, and to be that fearfully and wonderfully made creature that He means for us to be.

Yep. Love this post.

Erika Ahern said...

Maren, "To forgive someone is a grace. No one forgives without God (even if a person doesn’t believe in God, it is still through God that he is able to forgive!). Forgiveness is really hard. "

Yes! This reminds me of other attempts I've seen from secular philosophers to find some sort of therapeutic healing to humanity's woes. In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt enjoins us to forgive. But she leaves it at a human level; this is a natural solution for her. But as you say, I don't think forgiveness--which is the ONLY way to get beyond anger or hurt--is natural to us any longer. After the fall, in our human condition, it can only be a work of the divine living in us.

To err is human... yes.

Thank you!

Maren said...

I've never read "The Human Condition," but I have to admit I find secular explanations of forgiveness to be confusing. I read an article some months ago that argued the entire concept of forgiveness was outdated and feudal, and that we should all adopt an attitude of just "letting go." It wasn't clear what the author thought was the radical difference between forgiving and letting go, but I found the whole idea of "letting go" to be pretty unsettling. It seemed exclude the possibility of healing. The implication seemed to be that we should all just take ourselves less seriously and get over it (whatever "it" is).

And I have to say, that in my own experience, the kind of forgiveness that heals has always felt like something that comes from outside myself. It's never felt like something that comes from within me or like something I've chosen to do or been able to accomplish. It's not any kind of letting go that I've done.

So, yeah. I too think that a secular ideas of forgiveness often end up falling short.

Melanie B said...

This was a beautiful reflection. I've been thinking so much recently about how I need to approach Christ the healer to beg for mercy in dealing with my anger. Strangely, one of the fruits of my prayers seems to have been a book by a secular doctor. I do think there is definitely a place for understanding the workings of the brain and psyche as a route for allowing Christ to enter in and bring healing.

I do wonder how a Catholic counselor would have handled it. I don't think it has to be an either/or proposition. Counseling doesn't have to be secular. It's too bad you couldn't find someone who was willing to work with you in faith.

Annie said...

I love this post so much. You are so astute in your observations about modern psychology, here. I'm especially troubled by the way the counselor appropriated Christian thought/language because I know how deeply parts of Christianity are infected with these modes of thinking.

Anonymous said...

Fortunately, when I had (secular) counselling, the professional that worked with me seemed to have a more balanced attitude. My counsellor advised me to express my anger (at life's situations) to myself and to God, which resonates into some Psalms experiences. And then to forgive and learn when it is good for everybody involved to express the hurt and when it isn't. I was lucky to have both a secular counsellor with a willingness to work with me from my believer worldview (occasionally she didn't fully understand the implications of my beliefs, but most times she actually did!) and a healthy distrust of 20th century psychology theories AND a confessor/spiritual director that filled the gap from secular counselling to spiritual counselling. said...

Erika, my dear sister! This is one of your fellow philosophers from CUA writing, one of your fellow lovers of Humanity, one of your fellow singings of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful ... ... my dear one, what about your Belovedness! Perhaps the therapist was merely trying to ween you unto your own Divine Beauty ... ... as one of your favorites once uttered: "God is closer to us than we are to our very selves!" Thus, is not God, deeply Immanent ... yet, also always Transcendent?!?

I say sit long and hard with the Song of Songs OR rather let the Song of Songs sit with thee ... ... "You are Beautiful, You are Beautiful ... ..."

Totus Tuus Maria!

Erika Ahern said...

rvtierny, You sound suspiciously like a young lady of fire whom I have been praying for and missing these many years. Thank you for your Song of Songs call: I think that was an invitation from my divine Lover for the month of August. All joy and grace to you, dera sister.

Calah said...

Wow. This is not my first visit to your blog, but this is the first time I think I've commented. I love this post. I have been aching to try pop-therapy myself, if only to have someone who is forced to listen to me talk about myself for an hour a week, but really because there are things I need to figure out and my husband is getting tired of being my continuous sounding board. He, however, is wary of it, for these exact reasons. I already have a victim mentality and he is afraid that psychology would only validate that instead of helping me change. After this post, I'm convinced. I'm really glad I read this. If only I could find a good Catholic therapist!

I wonder, did your therapist never encourage you to moderate your reactions? For example, I have a terrible temper and a tendency to snap at my children. This is a major part of my motivation to try therapy. Would she have said that such a reaction, aimed at such small and helpless creatures, is appropriate? It's one thing to tell your husband that you're angry, but your child? And when they say, "I'm sorry," what would you say? "It's not okay. I'm still angry, and you just have to accept my anger?" That seems awful.

Sorry for the long comment, just really curious. I don't know many people who have been to therapy and I've always wondered what goes on in there.

Erika Ahern said...

Calah, I love your writing! Thanks for commenting. I'm encouraged by some of the other women who have commented or emailed me: It seems like there ARE good therapists out there (I've heard of happy experiences with therapists who are Catholics, Christians, Orthodox Jews, and even one secular therapist who was more sympathetic to the idea of transformation in Christ). I've been trying to come up with a good list of questions for interviewing prospective therapists, but the idea of making multiple appointments to go over them is overwhelming: the first visits to my therapist were so emotionally exhausting, I can't really bear the thought of searching for a new one at this point. Yuck. My secular therapist was very into "expressing your emotions" to everyone: husband and children included. She wasn't into voilence or screaming, obviously, but still thought that children should see that grown-ups "got upset" sometimes. Well, yeeeeesss. And no. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt: we only had seven sessions, so maybe she was planning on something different later on down the road. But I really doubt it.

My biggest hope right now is to try to find a real spiritual father/mother: someone who can listen and help direct me to a really Biblical response to my temper and anger and anxiety. St. Paul is filling in while the good Lord finds me someone still in the flesh. :)

Anonymous said...

As someone who has been seeing a Catholic therapist for almost 2 years (via Catholic, I can affirmatively state that my therapist is all about the forgiveness, growth, and transformation that is supposed to accompany the Catholic life. It is absolutely awesome to be with a seasoned professional who also acts as a spiritual director.

I, too, spent years with secular "cognitive behaviorial" therapists and hit walls. In fact, I was so disgusted by the no-results aspect of this kind of therapy that I gave up. It was all talk and "how do you feel?" with no results, no change. And certainly no motivation for change on the part of the therapists.

In my opinion, people are too quick to jump into therapy with just anyone because they're located at their local health care center clinic. You have to look at it as almost as important as finding a mate if you really want things to get better. They can do more damage than good quicker than you can blink an eye.

Asking priests for recommendations for therapists is always a good idea, especially the conservative priests. They know who's who in the local community.

I enjoyed reading this because I can totally relate. I hope that if you need therapy in the future, you can find someone who will understand that moving forward is a reality, not a feeling.

Rosemary said...

This is beautiful.

I have made great progress in the past with two different Catholic psychologists. They said nothing like what this woman said. Have you heard of the Fransiscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Meriden? They have a counseling center and THEY ARE AMAZING! I have a feeling you would love them. I don't know exactly where you live, but you mentioned New Haven, which I think is about 30 minutes from Meriden.

If you don't know the FSEs, perhaps you could give them a call, not necessarily for counseling but to connect with them. They have work days when lay people come and help them with gardening and other things. They are very connected to the local community. My sister is an FSE btw. They really live an authentic faith in the spirit of St. Francis and the true spirit of Vatican II.

Erika Ahern said...

Dear Rosemary, Thank you so much for the tip on the FSE's! I actually knew Sr. Damien very well in college and went to several workdays at their convent in MD. I had forgotten they were also in CT. We will have to go hang out in their garden sometime soon. Thanks again, and have a beautiful day! ~Erika

SusanBV said...

I have to spend a lot of time with my mother-in-law. She pilfers things from me without asking, often treats me in a dismissive way, and does passive/aggressive things that really irritate me. I absolutely have come to detest her. But forgive her? How do I do that? What she does expresses an attitude towards me though none of her actions are really a big deal. How do you forgive an on-going attitude? Show love instead of irritation? That is really hard. I try to get past my irritation so that we can moreorless start fresh at the next encounter. But it always ends up the same way. I do not retaliate, but I feel no affection for her. This burdens me and I don't know how to make the situation better. It has been like this for forty years. She is who she is, and I am who I am. That's that. Without some outside agency, I don't see how things will ever be any different. Any advice?

Anonymous said...

Courageous post!

I have been to secular counselors over the years. They helped me understand myself but as you experienced, once I got to the heart of the matter (faith), the gap between utility and assistance grows significantly.

Not all counselors are secular - although such mythology is the norm in our culture. is one resource I know about that may help you or others who read this post.

Rivka said...

You should really read the beautiful writings of Conrad Baars, a devout Catholic Psychiatrist. The things he says are really beautiful and God is always present. :)

Rivka said...

You should read the beautiful writings of the devout Catholic Thomistic Psychiatrist, Conrad Baars. They're really beautiful and the sense of God is always there.