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Book Review: Wisdom from the Couch

The Couch, Re "Klein"ed

Ryan Howes
Source: Ryan Howes

Peruse the psychology/self-help aisle of your local bookstore (if one still exists) and you’ll find shelves populated with the usual topics – addiction, parenting, ADHD, relationships, depression, anxiety, sex, etc. If your hip and astute emporium has a shelf dedicated to “Living a Great Life when you have Normal Human Problems,” chances are you’ll find two books loitering there: M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled” and Jennifer Kunst’s “Wisdom from the Couch.” If you’re on a quest for self-knowledge, meaning, and practical guidance, you should probably buy them both.

Wisdom from the Couch is the first book from Dr. Jennifer Kunst, a psychologist, psychoanalyst, and writer from Pasadena, California. Rather than cover the oft-travelled ground of treating disorders and proffering 6-step life hacks, she tackles such common yet complex issues as gratitude, thinking, work, feeling, balance, guilt, and humility. Not just a description, but how can we do it and why is it important? You’ll find she has a knack for artfully weaving insights from psychoanalysis, theology, and popular culture in a way that is accessible to anyone seeking a deep understanding. Her use of metaphor and storytelling keeps you turning pages as you glean wisdom from recent TV shows as well as ancient scrolls. Truth comes in many different forms, and Kunst will use anything to make a point, from Kahlil Gibran to Hägar the Horrible.

But before I go further, I must give a disclaimer.

Dr. Kunst (book, website, facebook, blog) works in my building. We are graduates from, and adjuncts to, the same program. We practice in a similar manner and we both blog about therapy for Psychology Today. Suffice to say, if someone suggested I had a biased opinion of this book based on my relationship with the author, it would be difficult for me to pose a strong counter-argument.

But believe me, this book is good.

So you’re going to have to take me at my word, or better yet, pick up your own copy and judge for yourself. I’ll make it easy for you. I asked Dr. Kunst to describe this book in her own words in the following interview:

Ryan Howes: What drove you to write “Wisdom From The Couch”?

Jennifer Kunst: I had two motivations, really. First, over the years I received a lot of feedback from students, patients, and folks from my church that I had a knack for conveying complex ideas about the human psyche in a very down-to-earth and compelling way. People felt like they finally understood themselves more deeply—and not just in an intellectual way, but at the level of the heart and gut, too. Feedback like that is inspiring and gave me the motivation to tackle the challenge of writing and publishing a book. Second, I became increasingly concerned about the limited reach of my work as an analyst. Because psychoanalysts work with people 4 or 5 times a week for many years, we don’t actually touch that many people’s lives. The way I view it, we tend to make a deep impact on a few people but not a broad impact on many. I wanted to extend the reach of my work beyond the narrow confines of the class room and the private practice office. I really believe that the wisdom of psychoanalysis can make a positive impact on people’s lives and I wanted to get the word out.

RH: Your book addresses topics like acceptance, humility, gratitude, balance, and love - not disorders, like we usually find in self-help books. Why didn’t you take the pathology route?

JK: I think that it is very difficult to be open to receiving help when that help is offered in a voice that says, “This is what’s wrong with you. You’re bad.” That kind of approach closes us down rather than opens us up. I also think that traditional psychoanalysis has focused too much on psychopathology and things need to change. I’m not talking about the pendulum swinging to the other extreme like we see in the positive psychology arena, but toward a more balanced approach. This is one of the reasons why I am drawn to the model put forward by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. If you understand her work at a deep level, you get that she appreciated the complexity of people. She emphasized that we human beings are engaged in a struggle between the more “positive” forces within us that are motivated by life, love, and growth and the more “negative” forces within us that are motivated by fear, aggression, and survival-at-any-cost. In my clinical work as well as in my writing, I try to emphasize the struggle—not just the positive side or the negative side, but both sides. Integrating these complex aspects of ourselves—or what I call “balance”—is the path to mental health.

RH: You don’t shy away from the impact of spirituality in this book, whether Buddhist or Christian or otherwise. Why the focus on spirituality when discussing mental health issues?

JK: In exploring mental health issues, I did not want “Wisdom from the Couch” to read like a textbook or an exploration of clinical case studies. That seemed too distant to me. Instead, I wanted it to be alive and engaging, and I felt that I needed to bring something of myself into it. Spirituality has been a central part of my own journey since I was a child. The books that I have read and the stories that have touched me often came out of spiritual traditions. So it was important for me to share stories that resonate with my own psyche—and I hoped such an approach would be engaging for others as well. Also, I made the decision not to share examples from my clinical practice. I wanted to keep my patients’ stories private. So I needed other kinds of illustrations and found that stories from religious traditions as well as popular culture could do the job. It makes me smile that my illustrations range from Bible stories like the Garden of Eden and Jacob wrestling with God to Zen and Jewish parables, and then to popular stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Karate Kid. As one reader said, it’s a real mash up!

RH: You are a psychoanalyst, yet you devote an entire chapter to cognition (thinking). Are you defecting to CBT, or do you believe there is common ground between the disciplines?

JK: In my mind, it’s not a competition. Different disciplines bring something to the table. We’ve all got a viewpoint that is helpful. Cognition is a part of the human psyche and so it must be brought into the discussion in a central way. Because clear thinking is so essential to living a healthy and successful life, all good therapy should help us learn how to think more realistically. When you look deeply into CBT models and witness it practiced by master clinicians, you can see that the CBT model is trying to get at the distorted, unconscious beliefs we have about ourselves and the world. At that deeper level, I think there is a real convergence between psychoanalysis and CBT. We may use different terms but we are essentially talking about the same thing. For me, psychoanalysis is a more comprehensive model than CBT and gets at these deeper cognitions more effectively but not very efficiently—so there’s room for everyone at the table.

RH: Some regard Melanie Klein’s work as cold and harsh, but your interpretation of her work is much more compassionate and warm. What gives?

JK: Melanie Klein’s model isn’t easy. She had the insight and the courage to shine a light on the hostile, destructive, and envious aspects of human nature—not because she was cold and harsh but because she saw these aspects alive in her patients, particularly in the young children that she treated. The idea that young children or even infants have aggressive aspects of their nature is difficult to digest and so we resist it. We want to maintain an idea that babies are born in “innocence,” perfect little angels or at least tabula rasa. But Klein saw—as did Freud, in his own way—that there are elements in the human psyche that operate not only toward health, growth, and change but also against health, growth, and change. Klein believed that treatment wouldn’t help unless the anti-life, self-sabotaging aspects of the psyche were addressed, too. So her model takes into account the good and the bad, the love and the hate, the envy and the gratitude, in an effort to find a kind of working harmony. For me, compassion is present when I try to see myself and my patients in an integrated way, working to repair what is broken while guided primarily by love. We don’t emphasize the bad nor leave it out; we lean into it with both discipline and compassion.


Still not sure if you’re ready to spend that holiday gift card on this book? Listen to Dr. Kunst herself on the Mental Health Happy Hour podcast as she takes us to deeper levels of understanding.

More of this sort of thing on my website, facebook page, and podcast.

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