Here is an important lesson in psychoanalysis – different schools of thought have very different kinds of parties. I know this because every year, the Jungians, Adlerians, Existentialists, Freudians and Moderns convene at the annual conference organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.
The old-school, classical Freudians usually lead on one of the mornings, followed by the Modern Analysts in the afternoon. This is known as Bread and Circus; bread for the Classical analysts who present new advances in theory and circus for the Moderns who present their craziest cases.
I like being part of the Circus crowd. I am, in fact, a modern analyst – interested in what makes us crazy and what makes us sane. And in good parties. Moderns don’t interpret their patients’ feelings and behaviors like Freud did and I think that’s a good thing. When I free-associate to the word interpretation, I immediately think of getting kicked. I just don’t like it. Plus, I don’t think it works. But back to the parties.
One year, the Moderns had a big party after the conference. It doubled as a fund-raiser for one of the schools, and faculty were trying to raise money. One professor was selling tickets to waltz with him.
Another was raffling tickets for a week’s stay in her Italian villa. I finally bought a ticket from a distinguished professor who was dressed up as a fortuneteller, to ask for her advice. I knew how exorbitant her supervision sessions usually were, and I was pleased to have access to her for just a buck.
Madame, I started, because that was what she was calling herself. I have a real problem I need help with.
What is your problem? she answered in an Indian accent.
What are you – an Indian sage or a French fortune-teller? I asked.
I can be whatever you want me to be, she answered calmly.
This pleased me. Now, I was getting far-eastern mysticism, psychic wisdom and analytic neutrality all rolled up into one.
Okay, I started. Here’s the thing. I’ve had quite a bit of success in the past decade. Marriage, good children, nice practice, awards, you know. But lately, I’ve had this feeling that some old, not-that-great feelings are…well, seeping in. How should I deal with this problem, Madame?
Ahh, said Madame with a twinkle in her eye. Those feelings…you must invite them into your mental house, child. Let them in! They will always come knocking. Do not be afraid. Look into the eye of the tiger. You must not turn them away.
A huge wave of relief washed over me. I had not realized, until that moment, how hyper-vigilant my guard had been against those old, familiar feelings. It was really wearing thin. It was exhausting.
Oh, Madame! I said Thank you so very, very much. Truly. Thank you. I will let them in, of course.
Later that evening, taking a five dollar turn around the dance floor with the waltzing psychoanalyst, I was aware of a tremendous sense of well-being. So those feelings were not an unwanted part of my character that I had to continue trying to shun.
They were not menacing monsters that could threaten to sabotage my efforts to lead a good and full and happy life. They were just guests in my mental house to be treated with respect and perhaps, a little dignity. They were truly old friends and by not hating them, I could find new aspects of myself to love.
Long after that party, I found that my attitude towards some of my feelings had shifted. I have always particularly hated feeling hurt or angry, for example. I have sometimes even behaved not in my best interest just to avoid those feelings. Now, I could contemplate that it was my given right to have those feelings, and that I could even, possibly, enjoy them.
What we feel – anger, grief, sadness, anxiety, shame…it’s only the beginning. The layers of thoughts and feelings on top of those simple experiences are what make or break our success dealing with them. Could I begin to love everything I felt? Could I love wanting to kill my husband and children, feeling rejected or outraged or gravely misunderstood? The possibilities are endless.
What helps us invite unwanted parts of ourselves into our mental house? A suggestion by a guru that we are finally ready to hear? Enough success that we feel empowered to more effectively mitigate the inevitable pains of existence?
Can a good therapist help us learn to embrace the unwanted parts of ourselves? What had led up to this moment, at this fabulous party, that made it possible for me to experience such deep relief and hope about a better future?
Psychoanalysis aside, the brain is never static. New synapses can be created in the brain at any time, anywhere, anyhow. The conference is coming up again this year and I’m going. Life is, after all, mostly just bread, and circus.