On Success and Having Arrived

During a session on Thursday, one of my clients was talking about his feeling that he had “arrived” in his profession. In his mid-30s, he’s well-established now in a competitive field, earning an excellent income and finding himself respected and sought-after as an expert. As I listened to him, I recognized that I had never felt that way, not fully. By just about any standard, I’m successful, leading a comfortable life; I’m valued by my clients and respected by my peers. I’ve written and self-published a book on psychological defense mechanisms that has sold far better than I expected. But I have not felt that I’ve truly arrived, not yet.

Arrival, to me, has always meant being accepted by the New York publishing world as a serious writer. As much as I love my work as a therapist, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, first and foremost. For me, arrival would mean finding a first-rate literary agent and then securing a book contract with one of the Big Six. This is my definition of success and I’ve been trying very hard for a long time to achieve it. Despite what I wrote in my post about precocity and impatience, around the time I sold Why Do I Do That?, my contract with New Harbinger Publications didn’t really give me that feeling of having arrived, not fully. New Harbinger is a small specialty house based in Oakland, California. And then, I had such an unhappy experience working with their editorial team, who tried to shove me into the cognitive-behavioral box, whatever satisfaction I felt didn’t last.

I’ve mentioned here on the site that I’ve been working on a book about narcissism for a while now. In October, I sent my proposal out to A-list literary agents and actually got to choose between several very good ones who wanted to represent me. Together, my superb new agent Gillian MacKenzie and I worked hard to craft my first draft into the strongest proposal we could devise. I had some excellent and crucial assistance from my friend Emily Heckman, a freelance editor. As always, I had the weekly support and critical feedback of my writer’s group: Laurel Goldman, Angela Davis-Gardner, Peter Filene, Christina Askounis and Peggy Payne. Earlier this month, Gillian finally sent out my book proposal to New York publishers. There was a lot of interest. Bids were due by noon yesterday — the day following the session with my client who felt he had at last arrived. I wanted so much to feel the same way.

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Self-Loathing AngerAbout 30 years ago during analytic training, my good friend Tom Grant was describing a difficult case in seminar — a man in his mid-30s whom Tom had already been treating for quite some time. Tom’s client came from a severely dysfunctional background that had restricted his ability to feel for and depend upon other people. He lived an emotionally isolated life; he was “schizoid,” to use the psychoanalytic term for it — “having a personality type characterized by emotional aloofness and solitary habits.” After years of analysis with this client, Tom had helped him to develop a strong liking for other people; Tom believed that a profound sort of love was likely beyond this client because he had been too damaged, but he could nonetheless sustain relationships and even get married. Tom said he had no problem accepting the limitations of what their work together could accomplishment.

At that time, I had a great deal of trouble with what he said. I was convinced that with enough time and hard work, we could help our clients to transcend their past, to become just as “normal” as anyone who had come from an intact, loving and healthy family. Looking back, I can see I had a highly idealized view of psychoanalysis, largely because I wanted to believe that my own lengthy analysis had made me “normal.” It took me many years to face and accept the ongoing nature of those emotional issues that had driven me into therapy at the age of 19, years to recognize the lasting effects of early damage. In my recent psychotherapy work, I’ve been focusing on similar idealized expectations held by my clients. Sometimes those expectations are conscious; often, they show up as self-loathing.

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Shyness and Self-Hatred

Early in my career, when clients would talk about intense forms of self-criticism or self-loathing, I used to make interpretations that focused on the savage and perfectionistic superego. Over time, I’d help them develop the mental ability to withstand this savagery and protect themselves from it. Later, as I described in this earlier post, I began to think more about learning from experience and facing our actual faults: the ways that brutal attacks on the self can represent a refusal to accept who we really are, with all our warts and limitations, which then leads to a cycle of crime and punishment where we repeatedly atone for our “sins” but learn nothing about what drives them. I still believe both of these perspectives have value.

Lately, however, as I’ve begun to focus more on shame and the defenses against it, I’ve come to see that self-hatred is a kind of defense in itself. Especially as I delve deeper into the work of Sylvan Tomkins and Donald Nathanson, I’m coming to understand how both shyness and self-hatred are strategies for coping with the shame that comes from rejection. They’re both examples of what Tompkins calls the “Attack Self” script for managing the painful experience of shame. From a lay perspective, for readers who aren’t familiar with affect theory, this might seem counter-intuitive but bear with me. I need to lay a little groundwork.

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The Client Who Wants to Remain Invisible

Several readers responding to my recent post about a client who felt invisible have asked me to discuss the opposite experience — the person who fears being seen and desperately wants to remain invisible. It’s a very different issue, with roots in profound shame.

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The Invisible Child

I’ve always struggled with the term attachment, used in my profession to denote the relationship that is supposed to develop between mother and infant during the earliest months of life. I may be too concrete, but it makes me think of those poor monkeys in Harlow’s experiment, clinging to that cloth-covered metal skeleton; it seems to imply a kind of physical connection when in fact, it’s all about the emotional relationship. In his video on attachment theory, Allan Schore brings that relationship to life when he speaks about the complex interactions between mother and baby — the role of eye contact, physical interaction and facial expresions in creating secure “attachment” — but it still seems to me to be the wrong word.

I’ve had a similar problem with Kohut’s word, mirroring, because to my concrete mind, it suggests that what the mother does is behave like a physical object (a mirror), though lately, I’ve been feeling better about it. In my work with several different clients, I’ve been struck anew with the role of our parents’ attention in creating our sense of self, how important it is that we feel that we are seen. In a fundamental way, we come to know who we are by witnessing our parents’ responses to us; in particular, the joy and love we see in our mother’s face convey to us that we are beautiful and important. Allan Schore has shown how the infant comes with a set of inbuilt expectations and behaviors geared to elicit those parental responses; when the reality of an engaged and loving mother meets those expectations, the result is a secure “attachment” (ugh).

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