In a recent LA Times article entitled, “Why therapists are having such a hard time talking about Trump,” psychotherapists across the country report that their clients are talking almost exclusively about Donald Trump and the effects that his presidency is having on them. While complaining of insomnia and panic attacks, anxiousness and an inability to focus on work, week after week clients are looking to their therapists for help coping with Donald Trump. It’s just a nightmare,” says Arlene Drake, a therapist on the West side of Los Angeles with 35 years of experience.
When Donald Trump promised to bring business back to the United States who would have guessed he meant like this?
Business is booming. Saturday Night Live, for example, on a ratings roll since Alec Baldwin began lampooning Donald Trump, has seen their best ratings in 24 years. “Political turmoil has been very, very good to Saturday Night Live,” reports Variety.
Other late-night TV shows are likewise enjoying much better than average ratings. Even the so-called fake news outlets (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, etc.) are experiencing the boon this new president brings. One good enemy, they say, is worth more than ten good friends.
Meanwhile, the LA Times article describes the difficulties therapists are having:
“This is so monumental because we are not in normal anymore,” said Randi Gottlieb, a therapist who heads the L.A. chapter of the California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists. “It’s putting into flux and questioning how do we practice, what is the best way to support the people we care for. We’re beginning those conversations — we don’t really have good answers.”
Seriously folks, this is some of the best news we could hope for! If it takes electing someone like Donald Trump to reveal to therapists and clients alike that “we are not in normal anymore,” well then, hallelujah!
But if, as the Times article claims, the last time so many people came to therapy wanting to talk about the same thing was after the attacks on September 11th back in 2001, perhaps we are being given a fresh invitation to enter into what we somehow managed to collectively sidestep then?
When the head of the L.A. chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists openly admits that the election of Donald Trump has put the practice of therapy into flux, and that therapists are being forced to reflect on what precisely therapy is, and, further, and perhaps more importantly, that therapists are discovering that they do not have good answers to the questions that their clients and they themselves are posing about what they’re doing when they practice therapy, it’s cause for celebration, and not because it’s good for business. James Hillman, the father of Archetypal Psychology and co-author of “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse,” has got to be singing the blessing of all of this from his home in the Underworld.
At the annual James Hillman conference held at Pacifica Graduate Institute shortly after the events of 9/11, one brave psychotherapist stood up and admitted that he was experiencing a great deal of difficulty and indeed anguish in his private practice. “I find myself deeply questioning: what am I doing?” he said. “Really? What am I doing?” Then, turning to address the room, “What are we doing? What are we actually doing? What’s the point of all this psychotherapy?” It was evident that he was not asking the question lightly, that he’d plumbed the depths of his conscience and had not been able to come up with a satisfying answer.
Evidently thrilled with the question, James Hillman turned to the audience with an air of expectation. “Good question,” he said. “What are we doing?” Inviting us to then to enter into the depths of the question in order that we might somehow catch a glimpse of what was trying to be imaginally revealed. Almost immediately, however, a ghastly, almost unbearable pall came over the room. And, seized by what seemed to be fear, a number of therapists quickly jumped to their feet and, one after the other, began defended their practices and listing the benefits of their work while extoling the various positive contributions of psychotherapy in general. It was an anti-soul defense, utterly lacking imagination, and completely demoralizing. For whatever reason, or reasons, we lacked the collective courage to tenderly hold the question and allow it to penetrate. What are we doing? I left the conference convinced that the practice of psychotherapy was beyond resuscitation.
So it should not come as a surprise then, when the LA Times article from last week goes on to suggest several “solution-focused” strategies that one Mid-Wilshire therapist, Allen Wagner, recommends for folks who feel overwhelmed by the new administration, strategies like setting time limits for consuming the news and deleting apps like Twitter and Facebook from our phones. The article quotes him:
“It makes them feel like it’s not something they’re watching, like a train wreck, and that there’s some level of control,” he said. “Maybe it doesn’t change the larger narrative, but it makes them feel as though they’re being authentic with themselves.”
Let’s slow down and repeat that last sentence for dramatic effect: “Maybe it doesn’t change the larger narrative, but it makes them feel as though they’re being authentic with themselves.”
What are we doing? Since when has the task of therapy been to make folks feel as though they’re being authentic with themselves? Good heavens! Doesn’t our current collective difficulty with Donald Trump stem from the fact that Donald Trump feels as though he’s being utterly authentic with himself?
If therapists are actively engaged in making clients “feel as though they’re being authentic with themselves” rather than working to “change the larger narrative,” as Mr. Wagner puts it, or at the very least working to reveal the various ways that we’re living inauthentically, isn’t this part of the collective problem? It seems that we ought not to take our personal, subjective feelings as proof of something objectively true, especially when, as revealed by Mr. Trump’s rather exaggerated illustrative example, feeling as though we’re being authentic with ourselves does not necessarily guarantee that we’re being authentic. Or to put it another way: An authentic buffoon is still a buffoon.
No. The form of therapy suggested by Mr. Wagner here is merely an attempt to return things to “normal,” and is therefore akin to president George Bush telling everyone to go shopping after 9/11.
Normal, as we all know, does not necessarily mean healthy. It might even be argued that the intervening years between 9/11 and now have been something of a collective stall tactic, a kind of frantic haggling over the price of what’s being asked of us now.
In the epilogue to his marvelous book, The Power of Soul: Living the Twelve Virtues, Robert Sardello suggests that the events of 9/11 were a moment of initiation for all of us, wherein we were invited to actively engage virtues like love and courage, patience and selflessness, compassion and courtesy. He writes:
Each of the virtues described in this book was enacted that day for the whole world to see. We saw a great power and desire for doing good burst forth in the actions of all who responded to the terror. We saw the possible founding of a new culture of care. When tested, the love we have for our fellow human beings lights up, and the world is healed from our sleepy indifference, our unconscious paranoia, and our ingrained competitiveness. Such is the power of virtue (227).
The word therapy, from the Greek therapeia means “to nurse, to care for and attend to, the soul. “Making folks feel as though they’re being authentic with themselves,” is against the soul aspect of things and entirely in service of the ego personality. More problematically, however, it simultaneously adds to the current cultural, and quite delusional, belief in affects— where we mistakenly believe whatever we’re feeling to be more real and more reliable than anything else. I feel it therefore it’s true.
Now more than ever we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of accountability than Mr. Trump seems capable of holding himself. Now more than ever we are required to discern the truth of who we are really, which is not merely who we’ve been in an accumulated-self sort of way, based on what’s happened to us so far and how we feel about it. Who we are really is who we’re becoming, moment by moment, image by image, dream by dream, and encounter by encounter.
Rumi reminds us that whatever we really see, that’s what we are. So one of the things we might learn by seeing Mr. Trump’s exaggerated example, that is, if we are but willing to turn the heart-mirror around and look at what we can so plainly see with him in ourselves, is that what it feels like to be us on the inside is not to be trusted merely because we feel it, regardless of the intensity and strength of our feeling conviction. Thus, who we are really, at any given moment, must necessarily also include how we are received and perceived by others.
But now it’s important to remember that Rumi also says that when looking at someone, one person might see a beautiful lover while someone else might see a snake, and they’re both right! So how we are received by others — that is, seen, felt, experienced, perceived — largely depends upon the others’ receptive capacities. (Attempting to control how others receive us, of course, means that we’re being manipulative, which is what we’ve all found so funny watching the likes of Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer.)
Meanwhile, though it’s hopeless (and imperialistic) to try to force someone who sees the beautiful lover to see a snake, or to force the snake-seer to suddenly behold a beautiful lover, it doesn’t seem to stop us from trying! But the task, according to the Sufis, is to see what we can plainly see over there, for example, with Mr. Trump, in ourselves, without becoming too distracted by the differences in our styles and thereby letting ourselves off the hook, as we are apt to do. “And I thought I was self-involved! This guy takes the cake! I’m not self-involved at all. Whew, what a relief!”
Yet now more than ever we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of accountability than Mr. Trump and his inner circle seem willing or capable of holding themselves precisely because they are either unwilling or incapable of holding themselves accountable. We have to step up.
It’s not just because we all have rather fixed ideas about what the president of the Unites States of America should be that folks are struggling, though this is certainly a big part of it. “Is he going to start acting more presidential?” folks keep asking. What we’re also struggling with, because we can so plainly see it in an over there kind of way on President Trump, is all that he seems deliberately blind to in himself. He highlights for us, in a rather burlesque sort of way, how sold we are on our own stories, the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, likewise believing our own hype, while practicing a similar sort of reckless self-idolatry.
What are we actually doing? then is no longer then just a question for therapists and those seeking help with various psychological difficulties and so-called disorders; it is a contemplative question for all of us.