Keeping Secrets from Your Therapist

When people enter psychotherapy, even if they’re desperate and deeply in need, they don’t fully reveal themselves in the early phases of treatment. As in any relationship, it takes time to develop enough trust so you feel safe making yourself vulnerable. A prudent reserve makes sense: how can you be sure the stranger sitting in the chair across from you won’t judge or laugh at you? Sometimes people who struggle with borderline issues will disclose powerfully intimate information right away, but they nonetheless keep some deeply shameful details in reserve. Everyone does.

Like most psychoanalysts, I advise my clients early on to be as candid as possible, holding as little in reserve as they can. I tell them I know it’s a difficult thing to do — no one discloses 100% of their most painful feelings, thoughts and memories — but they need to do their best. I acknowledge that it will take time to build trust, for them to feel I’m a safe person. As we come to know each other, they gradually disclose the more shame-inducing aspects of their emotional lives. Often their secrets relate to sex.

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Why Sex Matters

One of my colleagues recently told me how dismayed she was that so many of her clients in long-term relationships or marriages seemed to have given up on sex entirely, or had passionless, unsatisfying sex a couple of times a year at most. (She herself has been married for more than 20 years and has an active sex life with her husband.) For the most part, the sex lives of my own clients in long-term relationships aren’t so different from those of my colleague’s clients. The clients who have managed to maintain active sex lives over many years of marriage share a view that I expressed two years ago, in a post that outlined three pieces of unorthodox advice concerning relationships.

My third suggestion in that post read as follows:

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How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

It’s no secret that most people make and then break their New Year’s resolutions, and there’s plenty of Internet advice available on how to avoid such a disappointment: start small, make a detailed step-by-step plan, surround yourself with positive re-enforcement, etc. These are worthy suggestions, though they ignore the unconscious reasons why we often fail to fulfill our New Year’s resolutions. Most people don’t understand the psychological value and meaning of those “bad habits” they want to shed, to begin with, nor do they appreciate the additional stress occasioned by these healthier new habits they want to develop.

Let’s begin with one of the most common New Year’s resolutions — to lose weight. When most people decide to go on a diet, they rarely consider how over-eating may serve to fulfill unmet emotional needs. In marriages without affection, or where sex has died, we often eat as a substitute for the physical contact we crave. Consuming food may also anesthetize emotions such as grief or anger that we can’t bear to feel. Although loss of appetite is one of the primary signs of depression, depressed men and women may also seek relief from their painful symptions by eating. In other words, turning to food is often a defensive maneuver to avoid unbearable pain.

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Sigmund Freud and the Oedipus Complex

Freud’s concept of the Oedipus Complex is one of those ideas that seems almost to have disappeared from the field of psychotherapy; even much of what is written from the perspective of psychodynamic theory leaves out this central idea. Very few people search the term nowadays on the Internet — about 15K per month, as opposed to 135K who search for information about bipolar disorder symptoms or treatment and 110K apiece for borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. In part, this reflects the trend away from explaining mental illness in terms of its psychological and emotional roots (especially in the unconscious) toward the medical view with its emphasis on diagnostic categories akin to those for physical illness. I believe it also reflects a kind of widespread social repression, where unpopular ideas disappear from view, in many ways due to a misunderstanding of what the oedipal situation actually involves.

Sigmund Freud mostly clearly articulated his ideas about the Oedipus complex in the charming case study of Little Hans (1909), though he also discussed Oedipus in The Interpretation of Dreams (1905) and other early works. In Little Hans, Freud puts forward the theory that every little boy wishes to have sexual intercourse with his mother and wants murder his father in order to gain exclusive possession of her. It’s hard for us to imagine just how provocative such a theory would have been in Freud’s day; we live in a world where Freudian ideas have permeated so many aspects of our culture that it’s virtually impossible to understand how shocking and offensive his contemporaries would have found it. I don’t think people today find it shocking; if anything, they find it silly and misguided, a quaint idea from the early heyday of psychoanalysis, or maybe just plain wrong. That old Sigmund Freud — what a wacky idea! Wasn’t he the guy who talked about penis envy?

People might find the Oedipus complex more relevant if they understood the revisions and additions that have occurred since Freud first introduced the idea. Most importantly, Melanie Klein wrote extensively about the early stages of the Oedipus complex; she believed it unfolded primarily within the context of the feeding relationship: when the baby begins to become aware of the father’s existence, he or she feels him to be a rival for the nourishment and comfort offered by the breast. To me, the Oedipus complex is about emotional competition, in whatever arena; while I have seen clients with unconscious sexual feelings for their mother, I’ve more often found rivalry in the emotional area.

I’ve also seen a lot of competition for the father’s attention, with hostile feelings toward the mother. Jung referred to this as the Electra complex though that term doesn’t seem to have caught on. Many of us now think of the Oedipus complex in a larger, more varied way, as a relationship between three parties (one child and two parents) where the child competes with one parent for the love and affection of the other. It doesn’t need to be sexual to be considered Oedipal. It’s not limited to a boy’s feelings for his mother.

The Oedipus complex also involves the feelings of the parent toward the competing child. Let’s not forget that, in the original story of Oedipus Rex, Laius tries to have his infant son Oedipus put to death when he hears the prophecy. Many fathers feel deeply jealous of the attention babies get from their mothers; husbands often feel sexually deprived after the birth, and may feel that the wife’s involvement with their newborn leaves him out. It’s not unusual for mothers to feel deeply competitive with their daughters, and jealous of the relationship they may have with the father. I’ve heard it many times from female clients; my own sister told me that she didn’t have a decent relationship with our mother until my sister found her own man and got married. She was quite consciously aware that Mom was jealous of her relationship with Dad. Remember the story of Snow White and her vain and jealous step-mother? In the original version of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, it was actually her mother who felt jealous and tried to kill her.

My colleague Marla Estes discusses this issue in a recent post over on our Movies and Mental Health blog, using a film clip from The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to illustrate it. To me, the Oedipal situation is still a vital idea, highly relevant to my psychotherapy practice, and observable everywhere once you start to look for it.

Freud’s Theory of the Id, Ego and Superego: Lost in Translation

After I had graduated from college with a degree in English Literature, I took an extension course in Introductory Psychology; with five years of therapy under my belt, I had decided to begin graduate school in order to become a psychotherapist and I needed some basic coursework in that area.  I well remember the day the instructor delivered his lecture on Freudian psychology, explaining the tri-partite division of the mind into id, ego and superego.  With great scorn, he presented Freud’s theory as if those well-known terms represented actual sectors of the brain; I believe he even drew a pie-chart on the chalkboard, reducing Freud’s insights to an absurdly simplistic form, and mocked it. I don’t think the instructor’s attitude was particularly rare.  Freud has gone into disrepute — for some legitimate reasons, I suppose; but having read and re-read all 24 volumes of Freud’s works, and taught them repeatedly to graduate students, I’m full of regret that more people don’t understand how truly amazing, insightful and ground-breaking a thinker he was.  He also won the Goethe Prize for Literature — he’s a fabulous writer.

One of the challenges of reading Freud is the official translation into English, prepared under the supervision of James Strachey at the British Psychoanalytic Institute, between 1943 and 1974.  While a meticulous piece of scholarship, and an indispensable resource for anyone truly interested in Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud regularly substitutes clinical-scientific words for the everyday expressive language employed by Freud in German. One of the most important of these concerns the translation of das Es, das Ich and das Uber-Ich into the id, ego and super-ego, respectively.  (These terms actually go back to earlier efforts by Ernest Jones to bring Freud to the English-speaking world; Strachey and his team adopted those translations as they had already gained acceptance.)  A literal translation would be “the I”, “the It”, and “the Over-I”.   Those terms have a very different feel — less conceptual and scientific, more in the realm of our actual experience.

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