Over the course of my practice, I’ve come to know a few men and women who emerged from families so toxic and dysfunctional that I often wondered how they managed to survive, emotionally speaking, and why they hadn’t long ago surrendered to despair. Given how little goodness they encountered in their post-uterine world, why did they continue to believe in and keep looking for something better? What was the source of the ongoing hope that brought them to my office in the belief that someone could help? I think of these clients from truly awful families as optimists; this piece serves as a bookend to my last post on pessimism but maybe I’m misuing the word optimism. In this case, I mean that my optimistic clients, encountering a world without love, almost entirely bereft of goodness, nonetheless believed in the possibility of good and kept on searching for it. Hopeful might be a better adjective to describe these people.
I haven’t been posting much lately because I’ve been focused on my book about narcissism, plus I just completed another article for The Atlantic, which you can find here. It’s about bullying as a kind of narcissistic behavior, linking the Richie Incognito story with the suicide of Rebecca Sedgwick and further thoughts on Lance Armstrong. Anyway, I’ve now emerged from my research-and-proposal-writing cocoon; it feels good returning to the “outside” world!
So in my practice, I’ve lately been thinking about pessimism as a character trait. Selena, the client I described in my post about the importance of joy in psychotherapy, tends to be very pessimistic about her future. She believes that she blew her opportunity to launch a career right after college and that nobody will want to hire her now because newly-minted college graduates will be applying for the same positions. Not long after she graduated, Selena was fired from a job that didn’t particularly suit her, and she found the experience painfully humiliating. Most of us would feel the same way, but Selena has had a hard time recovering and moving on. She feels that getting fired has “tainted” her. Pessimism about her future keeps her immobilized.
Naomi, one of my long-term clients and a therapist herself, has been talking in session lately about joy. The importance of joy in the mother-infant relationship, in adult romantic relationships, and in the relationship between therapist and client. Her ideas have grown out of her own practice, partially stimulated by our work together and informed by Allan Schore’s writings on enjoyment-joy (part of the inborn affect system). Naomi’s views have had a strong influence on my own: we therapists learn so much from our clients, especially when they are thoughtful, gifted clinicians themselves.
This is an over-simplification of her views, but Naomi believes that joy is what makes the agony of infancy bearable. Helplessness and vulnerability, the reality of separation from mother, intense emotional pain of all kinds — these experiences are an inevitable part of early infancy. The joy we optimally experience in relation to our mothers helps to make the pain bearable. Feeling joy in her presence and finding this joy reciprocated helps us to bear the trauma of separation from her. Finding that our own joy elicits equal (and even greater) joy in mother allows us to endure feeling small, helpless and vulnerable.
I’ve been reading The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout — an excellent and yet frustrating book about antisocial personality disorder. Stout’s engaging style and in-depth clinical experience with victims of sociopathic predators bring the subject to vivid life. The vignettes read more like suspense novels: as the character of the sociopath gradually unfolds, your sense of foreboding grows. You continue reading with a mixture of dread and fascination, wondering what will happen to Stout’s clients, whether they will extricate themselves from the manipulative grip of an unfeeling spouse or parent, whether the unsuspecting people who surround the sociopath will wake up in time. I found the book a gripping read.
It’s a practical book, too: Stout explains with great clarity how to recognize sociopaths, placing special emphasis on their efforts to arouse your pity in order to manipulate you. She has a set of thirteen rules for dealing with the sociopath, useful advice for the person who may be under the spell of someone with antisocial personality disorder. Although she doesn’t normally recommend avoidance as a coping device for her clients, Stout believes that steering completely clear of the sociopath is the most effect mode of self-defense. Because sociopaths have no “conscience,” as she describes it, there is no way to appeal to their sense of justice or fairness. Because they apparently lack all human feeling for other people (empathy), you can’t appeal to their compassion. Because sociopaths will do anything in order to win, once you enter into their game, you’re bound to lose. Her observations seem trenchant, her advice on point.
Many years ago, back when I still lived in Los Angeles, I worked for a brief time with a client who was secretly draining his wife’s inheritance to support their family. He didn’t make personal use of the money or spend it on a mistress; instead, he took his family on lavish vacations, pretending to have earned the money himself, and used it to fund a lifestyle they couldn’t afford. This man worked in a field with the potential to earn large sums of money if he invested properly (and got lucky); he continually hoped to hit “the big one” and replenish the investment account where his wife had placed her inheritance. He hoped she would never learn what he had done. He eventually ran through the inheritance, however, and when his wife discovered the truth, she divorced him. Not long after, he discontinued treatment for financial reasons and, I believe, left the country.
Shortly after the truth came out, the wife called me. She had looked into the legal and ethical guidelines and acknowledged that I was “probably covered,” as she put it, but she nonetheless felt my behavior was morally wrong — that I had a moral obligation to tell her about what her husband was doing. It didn’t help to explain that what she expected me to do would’ve violated my client’s right to privacy and my legal obligation to preserve confidentiality. She regarded it as a moral issue. I didn’t then and I don’t now agree with her. And because I wasn’t her therapist, I couldn’t help her examine her own collusion in those unhappy events. My client had a history of lying and concealing the truth about money which she knew about, so it was surprising that she had made him a co-signator on the investment account and hadn’t looked at a bank statement or checked the balance in years.