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