Does the Therapist Have Holes in His or Her Shoes?

Can patients be helped by therapists with problems?

Posted Dec 01, 2020

Recently a patient who was angry at an interpretation I offered said, “Don’t you ever fight with your husband?” The underlying assumption was that I only have the “right” to point out her problems if I do not have any myself. If that were the case, no one would be able to be a psychotherapist! But recently, there have been two newsworthy examples of what might give grist to the mill for patients who are looking for reasons they should not trust therapists—one fictional and one true.

I Steward Maswenen/Unsplash
Source: I Steward Maswenen/Unsplash

In “The Undoing,” a limited series based on the book You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Nicole Kidman plays a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard (spoilers ahead). She is shocked to find out that her parents were not happily married as she spent her life believing, and her father’s elaborate gifts to her mother were his way of apologizing for having relentlessly cheated on her. She is flabbergasted when she finds out that the reason her husband is estranged from his family is not because his parents never forgave him for letting the family dog get run over; but rather because he never felt any remorse or grief after his little sister was run over by a car while he was making a sandwich instead of watching her. She is stunned to find out her husband was having an affair; that her husband had emptied their savings account; and that he was fired from his job at the hospital. And finally, she is aghast when she finds out that he murdered his mistress! None of this speaks well of her ability to pick up on unreliable narrators in her practice.

Another recent example of “the Emperor has no clothes” phenomena among psychologists is the article in the New York Times about a social psychologist who specialized in studying happiness who also died by suicide. The social psychologist in question, Philip Brickman, specialized in studying happiness. He found that lottery winners were no happier than controls. If anything, simple pleasures like talking to friends, hearing jokes, having a good meal — these simple pleasures left them less satisfied than before. On May 13, 1982, at the age of 38, the author of the study, Philip Brickman, jumped off the roof of Tower Plaza, the tallest building in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In the case of Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace Reinhardt Fraser, she is a clinical psychologist lacking curiosity about the people in her own life. Clearly, she was clueless about her husband — perhaps she had never been in psychotherapy herself! In the much more disturbing case of Philip Brickman, as the writer Jennifer Senior pointed out, he spent his life trying to figure out why he was not happy despite the objective reasons he felt he should be. He had “won the lottery” in terms of his career, but it did not satisfy him. It did not cure his depression.

What, if anything, can we conclude from these two examples of psychologists “having holes in their shoes”? Most people who become psychologists, whether clinical or social, are trying to understand something about themselves. Not all of them go through psychotherapy themselves; some of them do and it does not help (e.g. Philip Brickman). However, we do not have to be perfect to help other people. In fact, we need to know we are not perfect if we are going to help other people. That knowledge gives us humility and respect for the struggle to change ourselves. It helps us identify with patients who are struggling with conflicts, repeating destructive patterns, or acting out early relationships that they do not remember.

So, when my patient asks, “Don’t you have arguments with your husband?” or “Haven’t you made mistakes with your children?” The answer is: “Yes, I certainly have, and I know it’s painful and hard to deal with. But I also know it’s possible to change.”

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