I’ve been practicing as a psychoanalyst for 10 years now, and as a clinical psychologist for 10 years more. For many professions, such tenure is considered seasoned but, in psychoanalytic circles, I’m just getting started. It’s true that it takes a long time to get the hang of practicing psychoanalysis. One learns the theories in training and has the experience of conducting a few analytic cases under supervision. One also has the important experience of being in a personal analysis which hopefully brings to life the theory and practice in a vital internal way. Once training is completed, though, the practice of psychoanalysis truly begins.
So, in a way, psychoanalytic practice is all about on-the-job training. There is something invaluable about having a lot of experience with patients. People are complex and the unconscious is tricky, so it takes a long time to get a sense of what is really going on. Getting to know many different types of patients helps a great deal, too, giving one a sense of commonalities and differences. I have been fortunate to have a good number of patients who really want, need, and can handle the long road to a more lasting type of change. Together, we are committed to the therapeutic work involved in helping them find a way out of the cul-de-sac of their ingrained patterns that keeps them from moving forward to the life that they could and want to have.
These experiences have led me identify an essential bind that is an obstacle to progress for many of my patients. This bind is often not apparent at first but comes into view as it is played out, over and over again. It is a bind brought about by a rigidly held belief that there are only two polar opposite approaches to life. The first option is to achieve an ideal and the second is to give up. My patients get stuck because neither option works and they see no alternatives.
In trying to understand these experiences, I have come to view psychoanalysis, broadly speaking, as the discovery and pursuit of a third way—a way of operating psychologically that involves a balance between working toward improving one’s life while at the same time making peace with limitations.
In this essay, I want to elaborate a bit about the two ways that limit people, and then say more about the third way that opens a new path forward to lasting and productive change.
The first way—the path of pursuing an ideal—could also be called the pursuit of perfection. It involves the dogged pursuit of “the best” whether that means success, excitement, beauty, money, sex, power, or even being liked and respected by everyone. In this mode, there is no room for failure and no partial credit is given. Judgement for shortcomings is swift and harsh. It is all or nothing. Here, anxiety is the driving force and the wish for control reigns supreme.
The second way—the path of giving up—comes as a result of failing to live up to this perfectionistic standard. Once disillusioned by their pursuit of perfection, many of my patients shift to the opposite view that the problems of their lives are insurmountable. They see themselves as victims of other people’s power and demean their own capabilities. The hallmark feelings are resignation, hopelessness, and helplessness. They feel outmatched in life, up against too much from the outside without enough resources within. Here, depression takes the throne.
These two approaches to life go hand in hand, oscillating back and forth inside a person’s mind, sometimes from week to week or day to day, but even moment to moment. On one hand: drive, drive, drive in the pursuit of an ideal. When one falls short, one is then catapulted to the other side of the split: give up. Anything less than the ideal is viewed as being mediocre and not worth the effort. The misguided, distorted, even delusional assessment takes hold: I’ve tried so hard and I have nothing to show for it.
Having some distance and perspective, I can see that this kind of assessment isn’t based in reality. I can see my patients learning through experience, developing themselves through trial and error. I can see improvements in their lives, both on the inside and the outside. Sometimes they can see it, too, and there are moments of encouragement that fuel their determination to keep trying. But this important perspective doesn’t tend to last. On one hand, awareness of their progress can ignite the feeling that they can achieve it all, and the allure of the ideal takes hold again. On the other hand, awareness that their progress is limited and that there is more work to be done can bring about a weary, hopeless feeling that takes them back to depression. It is a vicious cycle with seemingly no way out.
So this is where psychoanalysis offers something life-changing: it can help a person find and develop a third way. The third way involves forging a new path that can lead you out of the vicious circle. It can take you out of this either-or, all-or-nothing kind of thinking. It is a new mode that appreciates what is in-between. It acknowledges steps in the right direction and values incremental change, slowly over time.
The third way involves taking a balanced, more integrated view of life. It is based in the wisdom that, even though we can’t influence everything, we can influence some things. It involves making peace with limitations in oneself, others, and the world. The good is valued even though it is not perfect. Forgiveness, acceptance, and compassion live here. Some worry that this position of self-acceptance and acceptance of others runs the risk of being misused as an excuse to quit trying. No, embracing the third way means to keep at it, to keep working toward improvement while still recognizing that the pursuit of perfection is both futile and ultimately self-defeating.
Psychoanalysis is one of several therapeutic, educational, and spiritual practices that offer this third way. At its base, I think it is the most realistic way of approaching life because it endeavors to see the whole picture and to keep everything in mind. If my patients can begin to get the hang of it, I feel that I have helped them discover and develop a practice that will help them in our work together and for the rest of their lives.
Copyright 2017 Jennifer Kunst, PhD