Dr. L (who prefers to remain anonymous here), has been a practicing clinical psychologist/psychotherapist in Los Angeles for the past twenty years. I had the chance to talk with her about some of her own personal experiences and perceptions of human nature while practicing psychology over the years.
What would you say are some things that you have personally learned about the nature of the human mind/brain while being a practicing psychologist for as long as you have?
Mostly, I’ve learned that we have so much to learn! I feel that in many ways we’re still in the dark ages about this.
However, in my own experience, I guess one of the main things I’ve grown to understand is that although our minds are malleable they’re also stubborn: a learned response, combined with constitutional predisposition, can make such an indelible impression. I guess neurologically that change can be a slow process.
That’s why I believe that a combination of in-depth therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy is the best way to go, with an emphasis on the first modality when there’s a difficult history that a patient is re-enacting. It’s hard to “paste on” new behaviors without first understanding how they developed in the first place. The analogy I use is that of a car and driver: our histories give us a picture of the world where when we arrive at the metaphorical stop sign we can only see one way to turn; learning how and why this happened helps us realize that, ‘Hey, there are actually two choices.’ We have choices—what a concept!
What personal epiphanies (if any) have you discovered about yourself in the process of helping others?
Where should I begin? First, I am my own best example of the answer to your first question. As psychologists we’re taught that our responses to our patients tell us something about how their minds work as well as about the reactions they elicit from the other people in their world. But they most certainly also tell us something about ourselves. Here’s how I fit into the stubborn mind category: I often find myself having the same response in similar situations that come up with patients, despite my own intention to learn from them and to modify my behavior. An example of this is that I often fall into the trap of intellectualizing with a smart patient because I feel stimulated by them. Intellectualizing is just about the healthiest defense of all; people don’t need to exercise that muscle in therapy. It’s often a protection against experiencing feelings.
In this way, yes, psychoanalysis is certainly a continuing learning process for me as a psychotherapist, and I hope for my patients, as well.
I’m curious to see the psychological patterns that might exist working with people in different parts of the world. So, for instance, you are North American and more specifically located in California. What seem to be the most common fears and/or neuroses you encounter in patients (both male and female) with whom you’ve worked in your country or part of the country?
Hmmm. This question reminds me that there are certain neuroses that seem to be prominent in every era. Freud wrote a lot about hysteria because this was a common response, mainly of women, in his time. We can say that this phenomenon is true partly because the culture of the time elicits a prevalent response in those whose defenses are maladaptive to start with. In the Freudian era there was a lot of sexual repression; hysterical reactions made sense.
So today it’s probably narcissism that we see most, perhaps especially in Los Angeles where appearance is so important. And everywhere the prevalence of the Internet and social media make it possible for anyone to have her fifteen minutes, and to play out fantasies of fame. Blogs, “selfies,” Instagram, you name it, there are myriad opportunities to show off.
Do you believe in and or use dream analysis in your sessions? If so, could you tell me your theory on recurring dreams?
We have recurring dreams in an attempt to work out unfinished business. I find that helping my patients who are not in touch with their inner worlds interpret their dreams is invaluable in assisting them in connecting to the wishes, conflicts, and fears they might be hiding from, or are inexperienced in noticing, so to speak.
I don’t interpret dreams for them. I ask them about their own personal associations to each aspect of the dream, and together we connect the dots. Invariably there’s a connection to something that they’ve experienced or are experiencing that unfinished, and sometimes even something that’s really completely out of their awareness. Dreams are a way that our unconscious is useful to us.
Do you have recurring dreams that you remember? If so, can you tell me one or two that have repeated significantly throughout your life?
When I was little I’d have a dream about a really scary house with dark rooms and a frightening atmosphere. Needless to say, I had a home life that was really scary for a little girl, and a mom, sadly, who projected a lot of her own fears and bad feelings about herself into me. Thankfully, as I grew older (not too much older), and began to feel more in control of myself and to understand a little better, they disappeared.
How can we live out some of the integral dark fantasies of what Jung called “the shadow self” without actually hurting ourselves or others?
Why do we want to live out our shadow selves? My understanding of this (it’s not a universal term in psychology) is that to express this part is to enact the poor defenses to our environment that we developed or to manifest the negative internalizations forced into us by caregivers. This is what therapy is for: to help us understand our shadow selves (as I understand the term) and to make the unconscious conscious, so that we have the choice to enact our—what, lighter selves? That’s what fantasy is for, actually, to allow us to “live out” our darker selves without actually doing so in life.
What fascinates you about the adolescent stage of psychological development and what are some of the common denominators you see as far as typical thought patterns and behaviors?
I love working with adolescents. It’s an exciting, though often confusing age. This stage in development provides an opportunity for a young person to gain self-awareness and to learn healthy ways of being in the world that can make such a difference to his or her future.
The “imaginary audience” is a well-known phenomenon in adolescence. Everyone is watching them, scrutinizing them, looking to expose their flaws! This is partly why they want to dress alike, use the same language, and mimic the popular kids.
There are so many separation issues in adolescence that are partly the cause of the rebellious behavior we see. It’s funny, I remember my son once saying to me when he was a teen-ager and I was trying to be such a cool mom, ‘What are we supposed to use to rebel when everything seems to be okay with you?’ Parents, be grown-ups, not pals.
One thing I wish parents understood is that the seeds have already been sown by then: the die is cast—pick your cliché. It isn’t the time to begin to instill values and attitudes, ethics and good judgment. You’ve been doing that all their lives, and now is the time they’ll use what you’ve already taught them. They’re not listening much to you when they’re teens, so by then you better have given them some inner resources they can go to without actually realizing that they’re following your lead.
Do you believe that something like astrology or numerology could actually have an effect on a person’s psyche? If so, how would you explain this effect? If not, how would you denounce it?
I don’t think science backs much of this up, but there’s no limit to the extent to which some of us can be influenced by something we’re told about ourselves. I think that it may be the personal associations we make to these things—much like the associations we make to our dreams—that can be enlightening. This question makes me think of what a friend who teaches testing to psychology students once told me. She had her students complete a personality questionnaire and when she returned the results to them in class she asked how many of them felt that the results of their evaluation were on target. Almost all of them raised their hands. But the thing is, she’d given each of them the exact same results. Human beings are complicated: all of us can identify with some aspects of one another. The right Aquarian might justifiably think that her horoscope for the week, one that’s really targeted to Leos, is also speaking to her. But I think what you’re really asking is whether or not being born under a certain sign or with a particular numerical combination, I guess in terms of the letters in a name, can determine or affect someone’s psychology. Not really, no. But I am willing to be proven wrong! It’s a fascinating idea. Because I lean toward the scientific method when trying to assess human behavior doesn’t mean I don’t think there are other forces at work that we can’t see under a microscope or count. For example, nobody can “see” the unconscious, but I still believe in this part of the human mind. Someone else might use the moon and stars, or numbers to explain what I see as the product of a hidden internal experience.
If you were coming to Earth as an alien observer what would initially hit you as being the most common psychological problem among humans?
I take it I’m an alien observer with a degree in psychology? I think all of us project our inner worlds on the external world to such an extent that we wind up occupying a very tiny psychological space and unwittingly causing ourselves a lot of pain. My theoretical orientation is Object Relations, which posits that we internalize the early experiences provided by caregivers and create an interior world with a cast of characters and a plot that we use from birth on to try to make sense of the world. We’re lucky if ours is a really good, rich story, with healthy characters, because for better or worse, it’s that story and those characters that determine what we expect—and therefore get—from the world.
If you can answer the above question. What would be the simplest solution that first comes to mind for this problem?
What do you think is the basic root or roots of misogynistic thinking and do you think through therapy men can learn or re-learn how to view women with respect instead of anger?
There’s a cultural question here, since what’s considered acceptable in one culture can be considered abusive in another. Of course, there are objective standards when it comes to the physical mutilation of one gender instead of another. As for individual men in the Western world who seem angry at women in general, the roots of this are often found in their personal histories. Helplessness, fear, an inadequate sense of self, identification with one parent or the other or with a societal example, the need to project negative feelings onto someone other than oneself, all can lead to ideas and behaviors toward women that demean or disrespect them.
I have confidence in the ability of people to change when they understand the underpinnings of their beliefs and behaviors. Most of us act on beliefs that we’re not even aware of that are embedded in our unconscious. In therapy, with the right help, it’s possible to discover underlying attitudes that we’ve formed without knowing it. We can bring them to light, question them if we want, and determine whether they have value to us or whether we want to discard them.
What keeps you content and/or happy?
If you’re a parent like I am it’s really true that you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child. It’s the price you pay for the experience and is separate from everything that you do independently to ensure your own satisfaction. The thing that makes me happiest is when all is right with family and friends. Maintaining rewarding relationships is an important key to psychological well-being and is a very popular topic in psychological literature right now. It has a salutary effect on health, increases longevity, and creates a sense of doing well that even making millions can’t reproduce. I think Warren Buffet says relationship is the key to success—actually. Speaking of money, the results of one study indicate that although it is essential for happiness, this is only up to a point. There’s a cap on the amount of money after which happiness no longer increases, at least not the kind of happiness that’s meaningful. I think this amount is $60,000.00. This reinforces the idea that once our needs are met in terms of physical necessities it’s up to us to enrich our lives in ways that are more meaningful. Freud says it’s love and work that bring us happiness through the achievements we make in those areas of our lives, and I agree. I love my work and in combination with loving relationships it’s what’s made my life feel more complete.
Interview of Dr. L by Emma Kathan for Psychic Gloss Magazine 2013.