Psychology and Psychotherapy

Here in New York City many, maybe most, people understand the value of good psychotherapy. In the artistic community it is simply taken for granted that therapy is expected at some point in life. We forget here how much that is not the case elsewhere.

A great many people have the idea that psychology and its partner, psychotherapy, is something for people who are considered by others to be crazy, or maybe, more kindly, mentally ill. They think that deciding to go into therapy is the same as admitting to others that we are crazy. It is not seen as a tool to help grapple with life’s struggles and challenges, it is not seen as a sign that someone is actually human and humble, reaching out for help when help seems warranted and accepting it willingly. It is not seen as a way to know oneself more deeply and consequently be a better person for that knowledge.

Since artists are required to know themselves intimately, inside out, we generally take all the help we can find to deal with our mental and emotional reactions to life’s events. Most of us are at least a little knowledgable about the main trends or kinds of approaches that have been part of mainstream medical and therapeutic circles for over a hundred years. Unfortunately, many people in this country have little to no awareness of Freud, Jung, Horney, Erickson, Perlz, or what was loosely called “The Human Potential Movement” in the late 60s and early 70s. That’s a shame.

The underlying premises of psychotherapy, no matter what approach one discovers or chooses, is that we all have unconscious attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, behavior and reactions to certain kinds of events or people and that these things can get in our way. Patterns that emerge to cause us trouble in coping with life may be completely out of our awareness and, therefore, out of our control, but persistent, even if the details vary from stimulus to stimulus. If you always “get left out”, if you always “get ignored”, there are reasons, and they have to do with YOU, not others.

The idea that someone can become “better” is in itself radical. Most people go through life with the idea that “I am who I am” without ever thinking about what that means. They do not believe they need to improve, they do not have any idea that their behavior can be inappropriate or self-defeating, arrogant and insulting or anything other than “whatever it is”. Dealing with such individuals can be very frustrating because they have no context in which to look at themselves in an evaluative or even critical manner. “I’m right because I am” is usually intractable. If such a person is in charge of a department, division, or (as we have seen), an entire country, it is actually frightening.

Yet, somehow, such behavior is not only tolerated, in many ways it is supported. As long as it is considered “odd” or “weird” to investigate one’s deeply personal reactions to life, especially with professional assistance, instead of it being a way to admit that no one is perfect and that we all have clay feet, we will perpetuate the notion that self-examination is suspect. We will give those who hold their opinions as being “the only way” increased power. We will undermine any possibility that human beings can learn that there are more ways to go through life than the reactions developed as a child, and which continue through into old age, until direct deliberate intervention stops those childish reactions in their tracks.

If you come to NYC to be a professional singer, on Broadway, you will be expected to confront yourself and overcome your inhibitions, your mannerisms, your limitations, and your fears as a part of your job. You will not be allowed to hide behind any kind of cover while performing, but instead will be expected to reveal your soul in your singing, your drama and your work. Not to do that is to lose the respect of your peers. What’s worse, though, is to run away from looking at your own inner world because it is there, and only there, that life reveals itself.

What is true within is also true when projected out. If you hate yourself, you will find it hard to like anyone who likes you. If you are insecure, you will find it hard to believe anyone who tells you that you are confident, thinking they are trying to manipulate you for their own gain. If you think you are easy to ridicule or if you regard yourself as a “joke”, you will find it hard to think that others can regard you with respect, even if they say they do. If you fear that someone will take advantage of you, your very fear will somehow draw you to encounter a person who turns out to do just that.

Artists, who are often more aware and sensitive to life than non-artists, can react strongly to even benign-seeming events. Artists live in their subjective worlds, with strong emotional responses, and with bold passionate opinions about their creativity, their livelihoods, and their daily lives. If you spend most of your time in a corporate office where everyone wears a suit and no one ever raises their voice above a quiet conversational level, you truly have no idea what it’s like to live in a world where the individuals in it are vividly alive, vitally active, and incredibly vulnerable to even the tiniest things. Artists are not crazy because they are sensitive, they are not crazy because they feel things more deeply than many, they are not “unstable” because they know that some events in one’s past can color the present in a negative manner. In fact, most real artists who want to make a significant contribution to life are not unaware of all of these things. They go into psychotherapy because they want to give more to the world, not less. They want to be free to be more authentically true to themselves.

If you think that you are “OK the way you are” you are in the majority; if you think that how you behave, what you do and how you react is “just the way things are”; if you think that nothing can be changed through conscious work, through talking, through new insights, through the skills of someone with training navigating the paths of behavior and thought; then I feel truly sorry for you. It’s a small way to go through life and it can have powerful repercussions, if not for you, then for those who live with you and share your life. If you consider yourself an artist, have the humility to submit your Ego to evaluation by a qualified expert, because your art will only flower and expand when you do.

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