Daphne Merkin’s unsparing account of her experiences with psychoanalysis in a recent Times Magazine cover story provides plenty of fodder for its detractors. Having clocked countless hours on the couch, Merkin is remarkably ambivalent about the efficacy of the Freudian-based therapy she has pursued for most of her life. She admits at the onset of her article, “to this day, I’m not sure that I am in possession of substantially greater self-knowledge than someone who has never been inside a therapist’s office.”
Merkin, an accomplished writer who has chronicled her experiences with severe depression in the past, deftly articulates the allure that draws analysands in and the rabbit hole in which many languish.
What I do know … is a certain language, a certain style of thinking that, in its capacity for reframing your life story, becomes — how should I put this? — addictive. Projection. Repression. Acting out. Defenses. Secondary compensation. Transference. Even in these quick-fix, medicated times … these words speak to me with all the charged power of poetry, scattering light into opaque depths, interpreting that which lies beneath awareness. Whether they do so rightly or wrongly is almost beside the point.
The “intangible promise” of psychoanalysis is what drives Merkin to search for the perfect therapist — a quest that spans four decades, untold thousands of dollars and a brief stay at a mental hospital. But rather than finding her therapeutic soulmate, Merkin is left to wrestle with thorny metaphysical questions about the nature of the therapeutic process.
There is no absolute goal, no lifetime guarantee, no telling how much therapy is enough therapy, no foolproof way of knowing when you’ve gotten everything out of it that you can and would be better off spending your valuable time and hard-earned money on other pursuits.
It’s precisely this kind of ambiguity that the clinical behavioral therapists profiled in Gary Greenberg’s cover story for the September issue of Harper’s seek to eradicate in their carefully calibrated evidence-based practice. For Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association and founder of “positive psychology,” the goal is no less ambitious than dismantling the whole of Freudian doctrine.
Psychoanalytically based therapies – preoccupied with what was worst in us, in thrall to misery, and reaching only toward ‘common unhappiness’ – had sickened, rather than healed patients; positive psychology, as the antidote to Freud, would be the panacea.
Greenberg goes on to discuss the paradigm shift toward clinical behavior therapy (CBT), whose adherents place more faith in scientific technique rather than open-ended conversation. It’s not hard to see the appeal of CBT, which seeks to replace the metaphysical murkiness expressed in Merkin’s essay with actionable checklist points:
[CBT] offers the appeal of talking – the attention of the therapist, the reassurance that all of our stories are important — and the promise of a cure. … In the place of a narrative improvised out of the roiling raw materials of the self, [CBT] offers a tale with a happy ending…
Despite its seemingly commendable emphasis on “positive thinking,” Greenberg remains skeptical of this results-based approach towards psychology, and asks if its practitioners miss something essential about the human experience in their relentless “march toward happiness.”
If Merkin, the life-long patient, makes an elegant case for the limitations of psychoanalysis, Greenberg, the psychotherapist, is equally persuasive in his lament for Freud’s diminishing sway on the field of psychology. However, both writers with their respective but equally compelling takes on contemporary psychology leave little doubt regarding Freud’s continuing influence in today’s world.