Knowing How You Feel and Being Less Ashamed
Acting in the moment, what you actually say and do, frequently seems to have a mind of its own, that is, frequently seems to escape your intentions, plans, professed values, rehearsals, strategies, resolutions, cost-benefit analysis, past experiences, etc. This is a common experience; Freud, for example, referred to saying and doing what seems to just emerge despite your contrary intentions or plans as das Es (the it, Latinized as the id in the official English translation of his work) to distinguish such experiences from saying and doing what you planned or intended and what you approve of. The American philosopher G. H. Mead observed that what you actually do in the moment in time that you do it is always impromptu, no matter how carefully you have thought about what you will do in advance (because in the moment you actually initiate action you do what you feel is called for in that moment, no matter what you have intended or rehearsed in advance). People who persistently say and do things they otherwise profess not to want to do (sexual or drug things or other things) often say they are baffled as to why their intentions, resolutions, values and so on do not change their behavior much if at all. I want to address this.
I have come to believe that what a psychologist says about people (as opposed to a specific person) should be based on observations that anyone can and probably has made in the course of everyday living. So I will use what I think is a common and easily recognizable scenario. Say you are angry at someone but trying to not show you are angry. You try to act nice, with the emphasis on act because you are trying to push down or away feeling angry (as an aside, notice that a good deal of what we say and how we think relies on metaphor, figures of speech, and so on). During the course of the interaction with the person with whom you are angry you say or do something that is not entirely compatible with a friendly, caring, considerate attitude towards a person. You tried to act as if you were not angry, but you did not entirely pull it off; some of the anger you felt leaked out (metaphor). The lesson here is simple and rather obvious: It is at times difficult to act as if you do not feel or think as you actually do. The more strongly you feel about something, generally the harder it is to completely banish expressing how you actually feel from what you actually say and do, especially over the course of time (in most of social living it is important not to notice and comment on a great deal of what you see occurring in a social interaction; therapists have license to depart somewhat from this general prohibition).
To continue with the being angry at someone scenario: You are angry, but you tell yourself you shouldn’t be angry, something happened that was no big deal, you should rise above it, whatever. But you are angry. Perceptions and reactions can’t actually be controlled (you don’t want to hear what was said as an insult, but you do). Maybe someone else would not be so insulted, but you are. This is an important point. We live simultaneously in a common, public world (otherwise we could not understand each other and could not communicate with each other) and in a private, idiosyncratic world. The private, idiosyncratic world is based on unique autobiographical experiences (e.g., everyone has biological parents, but no one but you grew up with your parents; this is true even if you have siblings). You are a participant in a culture and a language community, so you have a serviceable understanding of what an insult is. At the same time you have a unique personal history, so how you react to situations and remarks often has an idiosyncratic component even if no one is aware of it. Common world and private, idiosyncratic world (if you don’t think we live in a common world, think of trying to get your electricity turned on when you move into a new house or condo or apartment; on the other hand think of putting into words why your favorite book or movie is your favorite book or movie). Your reaction to a particular remark at a particular time has a predictable, let us say typical component, but it may also have a large or overwhelming personal, private, idiosyncratic component. Charles Manson grew up in the same society and speaking the same language as you and I did, but he also had quite unusual experiences in the course of growing up. Actually I am speaking rather loosely. Do hungry minority ghetto children grow up in the same society as the children of fabulously rich white people, although legally they all grow up in the sovereign country ‘America’? I would say legally Yes, but culturally and experientially No. Do I live in the same society as people who use their own jet and their own pilot to get from A to B?
Getting to know a person really well means getting to know their personal, private, idiosyncratic world. This is of course hardly news. It takes a lot of time and talk and disclosure to get to know a person’s private world. A therapist will get to know some people better than anyone else will because a therapist is obliged to maintain confidentiality, which inspires disclosure, and because therapy is a professional relationship, not a personal relationship. Both considerations help the client relax his/her usual face saving and impression management to an important degree with the therapist (people who cannot do this do not like therapy and soon quit, in my experience).
The private world is not subject to the same pressures and constraints as the public world. For example, periodically but routinely and predictably the TV watching public learns of some sexual or other transgression of law and/or public morality on the part of some newsworthy person (e.g., Eliot Spitzer). This comes as a surprise to the public because, naturally enough, the now outed person has made efforts to segregate his /her transgressions from common knowledge. Once outed, it becomes rather obvious that the person has had urges, desires, wants, etc. that he/she has endeavored, but unhappily from his/her perspective has ultimately failed, to keep as private as possible given the activity involved (e.g., if a person uses an escort service some people have to know about it; in Spitzer’s case his face was too well known to keep his activities secret indefinitely, although his very public fall from grace may have been politically motivated as he had made powerful enemies). Once outed, the situation for the outed person dramatically changes and he/she may have understandable motives for at least verbally distancing him/herself from the feelings and so on that led to the now disgraced behavior. But in the private and confidential therapy situation the person may be able to be more forthcoming about the full range of his/her thoughts and feelings. The full range will probably include a mixture of publicly defensible thoughts and feelings as well as thoughts and feelings that are not amenable to public defense (e.g., I drink excessively because I can only really relax when I am by myself getting drunk will not be heard as good news by a person’s spouse and others).
The point I am trying to set up is this: Matters seem less mysterious when a person reveals a larger slice of how he/she actually thinks and feels. A person’s cruel remark becomes less mysterious when he admits he is angry and harboring a grudge; a person’s secretive, intransigent drinking becomes less mysterious once he admits that solitary intoxication is the only time he really feels safe and relaxed, and so on. Now the question arises: Did the person already know what he is now admitting in the therapy situation before he admitted it? Trying to answer this question has been a project for philosophers and psychologists for some time. Certainly people can know things about themselves and keep them private, but do people really not know things about themselves that they discover in therapy? This is a rather tricky question. Marie Belmary, a French psychoanalyst, suggests at the end and punch line of her psychoanalytic study of Freud (based on his published and unpublished writings and upon historical information about him unearthed by others) that a person may sort of know certain things about himself but that knowing becomes clearer, more accessible, and more utilizable when it is articulated; self-knowing through talking, in other words. She suggests that the psychoanalytic unconscious may amount to nothing more than lack of opportunity and motivation to talk about, to reveal, sensitive personal matters. The lack of opportunity to which she is referring is precisely a trusted interlocutor who wants to know, who will listen with credulity and empathy. For many people this is going to mean a therapist (the thesis that a person may only clearly realizes something about himself that he did not want to face through conversation-confession is not exactly unknown in literature, e.g., Joseph Conrad). The role of talking and obviously language is crucial here. By ‘here,’ I mean self-knowledge and self-understanding and ultimately self-control. Once you start to talk to a person you become obliged to try to say what another person can understand. This requires marshalling and organizing your private thoughts and feelings for the interpersonal (linguistic) domain. When you do this in a patient and safe enough situation you may be surprised to discover what you know about yourself that you did not realize you knew. The active responsive role of the interlocutor should not be minimized in your revealing-discovering process. An interlocutor who for example maintains a cold silence is not likely to be useful to you if you are trying to reveal or just talk about sensitive personal material. Being an astute, facilitative but not intrusive active listener is a real skill and takes a lot of time an effort to develop (when I have taught it I try to orient students by saying you have to unlearn or hold in abeyance a good deal of your socialization into everyday conversation, and this requires a lot of motivation as well as frustration tolerance). Perhaps I can convey the difference between tacit knowing and articulated knowing by reminding readers of the experience of trying to write about a topic you think you know or are even sure you know. When you begin to write it is a shock to discover how difficult it is and how much time and effort it takes until you have a product you are proud to show and that people can understand and learn from. In a way you already knew the finished product before you started, but a great and prolonged effort may have been required on your part to produce the finished version of the paper (and you know that articulation is never actually finished. Also, and this feature is conspicuously clear and important in the therapy situation, you never really know in advance where endeavoring to put your thoughts and feelings into words will take you. I believe this shows rather clearly that a great deal of what you have experienced does not already exist in your head in the form in which it is articulated to a specific other person on a specific occasion. In a similar vein, it would be a mistake to think the finished paper you labored over so long already existed in your head before you began to write. It might be better said that the potential for some version of the finished paper existed before you began to write it. But you cannot hand in or publish the potential for a finished paper.).
The therapy situation is unusual, perhaps unique, because the therapist is deliberately striving to create a speaking opportunity that is as safe from censure, embarrassment, and negative practical consequences as possible. That’s part of why a paid profession of psychotherapy with ethical and legal constraints exists (one hardly needs to ask if revealing highly sensitive personal information to another person in everyday life can be done fearlessly. I was socialized into the so to speak sacredness of therapeutic confidentiality long ago, but over the years the sanctity of therapeutic confidentiality has been eroded by the courts and by legislatures. This is a complex topic beyond the scope of the present paper). The benefit of such a speaking situation that I am emphasizing here is two fold; (a) greater self-knowledge, and (b) a reduction in behaviors that have the feel of being driven or escaping from your intentions, values, and so on. As discussed, greater self-knowledge is acquired by speaking intelligibly to another person (knowing through talking). What is known tacitly is not the same as what is said intelligibly to another person (I tried to highlight this by referring to the difference between starting out to write a paper and actually completing a worthwhile version of it), and again beginning to speak and developing a thought in words may take you to unexpected places.
With regard to (b), reduction in behaviors that have the feel of being driven and escaping from intentions and values, I will return to the hypothetical case of a person who turns to solitary drinking and drunkenness because he can only really feel safe and relaxed when he is alone and getting drunk. I have already suggested that the person in this hypothetical example is unlikely to find a sympathetic audience for his predicament in his family or circle of friends (actually people who prefer solitary drinking usually don’t have close friends in whom they might confide). Unable to confide, to discuss, to admit, to explore why, etc., the person is confined (trapped) in the closed circle of his own inner life. This is frequently a recipe for maintaining the status quo (hiding, sneaking, disguising, defending, denying, etc. maintain the status quo). Talking (confiding, revealing) opens up the closed circle. Trust and the absence of fear that revealing will surely set in motion unwanted practical consequences are necessary for the kind of talking I have in mind, thus the need for a therapist.
The kind of talking I have in mind is not easy to get to. It doesn’t happen right away with a stranger, even if the stranger is a licensed professional and you have to pay to talk to him/her. It takes time, the development of trust, and the memory of many shared conversations and revelations so that you can go on and go into more depth because you do not have to constantly explain what you are talking about and contextualize what you are talking about for the sake of intelligibility (contrast with your first meeting with the therapist). You just can’t get that deep with someone you don’t know how far you can trust and who doesn’t know you very well. We see here the connection between the depth of talk (candid, honest, searching) and the development of trust, confidence, etc. in the therapist, who is another person, albeit a professional acting as such, doing his/her work. The point is a certain depth of talk cannot be separated from who it is you are talking to and how you feel about that person. A certain depth of talk and a certain intimacy and trust go hand in hand. Perhaps an unprecedented intimacy and trust.
The relationship if any between enhanced self-knowledge acquired in therapy and the feeling of enhanced ownership of behavior has been a topic of debate for a long time. In a sense it can hardly be otherwise, since enhanced self-knowledge would have to include more understanding of the needs, motives, etc. you actually have and the compromises you actually make but typically don’t like to acknowledge as such. Actually the usual way to pose the issue is not as I have posed it at the beginning of this paragraph. The usual way to pose the question is what is the relationship if any between enhanced self-knowledge and behavior change desired by the client or, likely as not, desired by someone else. A person who acknowledges he likes to drink alone and get drunk because that is the only time he feels safe and relaxed does not automatically change his preferences and habits. His preferences and habits are based on a long line of personal development. It is something of a dream to think that a person can quickly alter really basic, long-term features of him/herself (excluding constant monitoring backed up by sanctions). Deep (candid, honest) talk, which requires trust and connection with another person, can break into the closed circle of a person’s inner life (and preferences and habits). A person who can grasp more of what actually animates him/her is in a position to contrive change. That is the relationship between enhanced self-knowledge and behavior change.