Demigods on Eggshells

“Without in the least wishing it he (the therapist) draws upon himself an over-valuation that is almost incredible to the outsider, for to the patient, he seems like a savior or a god. This way of speaking is not altogether so laughable as it sounds…Nobody could stand up to it in the long run, precisely because it is too much of a good thing. One would have to be a demigod at least to sustain such a role without a break, for all the time one would have to be the giver….”
(C.G. Jung from The Personal and Collective Unconscious

To be a therapist, is to spend a significant amount of time each work day being actively idealized, attempting to sustain a certain type of idealizability, and tolerating the responsibility and anxiety of the role you have been assigned: carrying the idealizing projections of others.

It is tricky and delicate business, to accept, and even enjoy the over-valuation of people who may need to see you, at least for a time, as Conscious, Wise and fully Self-actualized.

And it is essential never to actually believe a word of it.

In life, this is not so very difficult to imagine. We all know what it is to be looked up to by a young child, or through the eyes of a junior adult like a younger sibling or a new friend, a mentee, a student, or a protege.

We also know that with time, practice and age that they will end up essentially where we are. The road from there to here is not so mysterious or magical once you have walked it. Once you have developed some sufficient mastery in one area of your life, if you are healthy enough, you don’t think it gives you any magical powers or special qualities in any other area of your life, no matter how astounding it seems to others.

When my son was around five, he pulled up a stool to watch me, wide-eyed, as I made breakfast. As I whisked up some eggs in a glass bowl, turned the heat on under the pan, and poured in the scrambled goo he exclaimed:

“Mommy, you amaze me. You are amazing.”

(It was a delicious moment, one that I hang onto now that I have an eye-rolling 9 year old, who is just trying on his new shiny self-protective shell of snark-snot-and-sarcasm.)

Mommy, you amaze me.

I never for a moment believed that I had scrambled miraculous eggs. I never considered for a second that I actually had unique, magical cooking powers or that I was the most amazing cook in the world, in NYC, in my borough or even on my block.

But it was deeply pleasurable nonetheless. To see a simple act of minimal mastery through a child’s eyes: using my my mature fine and gross motor skills to crack open a perfectly packaged egg, directing its contents without spilling a drop, moving a whisk faster than the eye could see, watching the mixture whirlpool around at my command, summoning fire and flame without fear or hesitancy, prodding the spitting, sizzling eggy-glob with nothing to protect me other than a mere wooden spoon, transforming it all into comforting meal using a dangerously hot piece of metal.

Now that is something.
Maybe even the stuff of demigoddesses…

The pleasure grows from remembering when I thought it was a miracle too. From recalling my own mother’s miraculous ability to make the most delicious grilled american cheese on white bread sandwiches in the world while domesticating the threats and terrors of the wild and unpredictable electric skillet.

It is joyful to be reminded that the skills I take for granted were hard won over many over-cooked meals, burned fingers and inedible food tossed in the garbage – as I traveled from not knowing how to cook at all to competently scrambling an egg.

It was also absolutely lovely to recognize that my divine ability to scramble eggs out of thin air, made my son feel safe, and confident too – through his identification with me. If I can make eggs, tame fire, if I am able to use sharp knives safely -what can’t I do? I could certainly take down any lurking “bad guys” or monsters, with a flick of my magic whisk. He felt stronger, braver, special more capable through his secure alliance with me in all my egg-scrambling glory.

And another pleasure: knowing that very soon, all these amazing powers would be his. The pleasure comes from knowing how I developed this skill, that it can be conveyed over time and through maturity, that he would soon catch up, and probably quickly surpass me.

In fact, today I woke up, four short years later, to find him making a garlic scape (I had no idea what those were until this morning), sweet orange pepper, and cream cheese omelette for breakfast.

He amazes me. He is amazing.

Healthy idealization is ultimately, a mutually admiring experience.

In the early stages of therapy – when we are vulnerable and the healing crisis is fresh and disorienting – we often need to see therapists as intact, healthy, knowledgeable, experienced authorities. Competence, confidence, mastery are essential in making us feel safe, held, well-guided and incubated through the aftermath of the events that drove us into therapy to begin with.

Sometimes an idealized therapist serves us as a protective shell, guarding and concealing vulnerable, unformed and embryonic aspects of the Self as it consolidates.

“A successful phase-appropriate chip-off-the-old-block type merger with … the idealized father (parent/therapist) and the subsequent gradual or phase-appropriate disappointment in him might… enhance self-esteem. (Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self)

Phase-appropriate disappointment.
If only it were as easy as it sounds.

Kohut spends a great deal of time discussing the importance of manageable empathic failures, tolerable mishaps, humanizing mistakes. These unavoidable errors and revelations disrupt our idealizing transferences, and remind us that the person who is holding all our eggs in a single basket, is human, flesh and blood, not a demi-god.

Idealizing transferences have a function and a cost. The gain is the sense of hope we get from feeling connected to someone bigger and more powerful than we. The shadow is that as clients we are smaller, diminished, and fearful that we will have to stay “smaller than” in order to stay connected.

For therapists, the danger is that we can become inflated, burst our shells, accept medals and approbations that we have not earned.

Other times sitting in the therapists chair can feel stiff, brittle, and anxiety provoking as we try to keep our disruptive, broken and wounded, aspects hidden from view, our humanity banished by the necessary admiring distortion.

There is often little room for failure, for error, for the therapist to be an equal partner or a fellow traveler, or even fallible in the early phases of engagement and therapeutic relationship building.

I walk on egg-shells, waiting: its just a matter of time before I stumble, show up late, misunderstand, forget a necessary detail, repeat myself, challenge a defense at the wrong moment, bump into a painful bruise. How bad will it be? The suspense is excruciating. How long until it cracks? How deep or disruptive or painful? Will I injure, trigger, re-activate an old wound too profoundly? Will it break open before we have developed the necessary language and trust to negotiate it? Will we survive it together? Will it evoke destructive rage? The timer ticks away. Will I be the one to shatter a self-protective but illusory hope? Will the client be contemptuous if I prove to be less than perfect? Will the trust we have worked so hard to earn together fall to pieces?

I squirm imperceptibly in my seat, releasing pressure with self-deprecating wise-cracks. Fear mounts – the more the client inflates me, the more steep the drop. The more that I represent the perfectly satisfying feed, the more likely I will be eaten up. Or spit out in pieces.

I try to inoculate everyone who comes in at the initial consultation:
“It is not a matter of if I disappoint you, but when and how I will. However it happens, however small the error or annoyance – you may not even notice it until you leave the session and some comment I made, or something I did or didn’t do suddenly rises up hours later and sticks in your craw – it is extremely important that we talk about it, find language around it, and make it a part of our work together.”

Probably few remember when the time comes and I do lay a big old egg. But I have at least told the truth. I have made no false promises and did not commit myself to a perfected stance I cannot sustain. The caveat gives me the space to sit in my seat, carrying the loneliness and responsibilities of the idealizing gaze, for as long as necessary, knowing that it will not last forever.

In the folklore of most of Europe, the strength or the life of supernatural beings could be destroyed only if an egg, usually hidden in some… inaccessible place, was broken.
(see Eggs: Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend)

Ultimately, it is extremely relieving when the illusion, the facade cracks at last, and it is time to descend inch by inch, climb, fall, or be squarely knocked down off the pedestal that I had to sit upon for a time.

This is true: A healthy therapist will not ever need you to stay small. They will be increasingly relieved by their incremental over-throw, happy to rescind the authority temporarily granted to them while old wounds healed. They will step down with dignity and acceptance of their own humanity and rejoice to see you claim your own authority when you are ready.

A profound moment in my treatment, more than twenty years ago: I was waiting tables and, along with the entire wait staff, had to attend some mandatory-bull-shit-motivational-team-building-brain-washing-success-cult seminar. At my next session I spoke of how enraged, disgusted and toxic I felt. I assumed I’d behaved badly in the forced forum: I’d folded my arms, stared at the floor, sat surly and glowering as I refused to let them force their simplistic cult-speak into my mouth. I was sure, that my pouty, sour behavior was an insufficient and immature way to express my opposition to this coerced programming and that my therapist would have had some much more effective way to maturely express his disagreement and set a healthy boundary that I, in my undeveloped state, couldn’t yet conceive of.

He said: “Me? Really? I probably would have gotten totally pissed off, and screamed at them stormed out and lost my job. That’s what I probably would have done.”

Fresh air.

His admission of humanity, his discomfort with my defensive, self-negating uses of idealization, disrupted at the right moment made room for me to hatch further, aknowledge my growing powers of discernment, judgement, and impulse control.

The therapists I trust find ways to enjoy the inflating gaze of their clients and what it represents, accept it as developmental and transitional, without needing it, believing it, attaching to it, or feeding off of it. And they will release it with pleasure as you are ready and your own strength mounts.

One day, strengths will equalize, and a new relationship, one that makes room for two whole people with differentiated and individualized strengths and weaknesses will emerge.

And a new kind of intimate collaboration, between participants of equal powers, can begin.

It is sweet connection to be amazed and amazing.
It is a lovely thing to be surpassed.

It is sweeter still to work together, side by side, and to make a meal, more beautiful and inspired, than either of you could have cooked alone.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford


I curse in session too regularly, and should probably be more ashamed of my potty mouth than I am.

I can talk frankly about anything from money to masturbation without blinking an eye.

I can discuss the darkest sins, the deepest shames, give words to feeling states that are subtle, terrifying, violent, kinky, mystical and murderous. I can use and parse my counter-transferential, intersubjective, empathic and projectively identified responses through some pretty tricky co-created therapeutic enactments.

But there is a word that I have almost never used
Even, (actually, especially) when I am near bursting with it.

I’ll speak all around it. I will, when the time is right and the relational necessity emerges, talk about feeling protective, allude to our connection our history, our alliance and hard work together, admit that I am touched, or deeply moved. I will share about the ways that I trust our relationship, or have confidence in our partnership. I will on occasion, admit to feeling proud or impressed. I will offer up my experiences of admiration, and perhaps, in specific circumstances, confess to the obvious affection or highlight experiences of closeness my therapeutic partners have evoked in me.

I know as a patient, my attachment to my own therapist took many forms. Just twenty-one, lost in a huge city with an overwhelming and toxic emotional inheritance to sort through, he, (25 years old and just out of grad school) was the first still, consistent and stable entity I had stumbled upon. For the first several years, I needed him like I needed gravity to keep me oriented, like I needed oxygen to breathe (god bless him and his supervisors).

I didn’t need to think much about how he felt about me – because he was kind and patient, He was honest. He displayed consistent interest in understanding me. He didn’t recoil as my barely restrained mess poured out all over his office.

I didn’t think much about his subjective experience of connection to me, because I assumed that his behavior revealed how he felt for me. I could see that sometimes I annoyed the shit out of him, or could make him laugh, or unsettle him, or corner him into a tight spot when I demanded that he understand me exactly, leaving him little room for error. But, for me, the proof was in the pudding – I assumed that anyone putting up with all my crap must have some basic positive regard for me.

I had no need for him to say it or feel it.

He behaved it. He gave it.

To call further attention to it would detract from the giving of the gift.

In my own practice I know that big, silly, burps of affection rise in my heart at the most ridiculous and inopportune times. Right when some one is in the middle of an animated flip-out about their abrasive roommate, or while some complicated exposition about details at work unfurls. A turn of the head, their hands moving in the air, a creative, emphatic choice of words, a moment of courage, the track of a tear down their cheek, a scar, a freckle, a gesture I had never noticed before – some small bittersweet detail of a soul and a life completely unique, unlike any other human on the planet – fills me with awe, and adoration.

If I’m not careful, my appreciation can be disruptive:

“What? What did I say? Why are you smiling?”
“Hmm? I was just listening… I guess something about the way you said that just made me very glad you found my office – just made me feel happy to know you, – I didn’t mean to smile or interrupt, please go on…”

I sit, sometimes for years at a time, hiding unrequited affections, holding myself as still as possible. Any behavioral indication of the softer-spots in my heart could terrorize and
flood those who have been wounded in the minefield of distorted attachments.

For some, interpersonal emotional connection is completely entangled with abuse or abandonment. Closeness is only an opportunity for pain.

Some have used adoring words as a ruse to establish a claim to another’s soul and to take ownership of the beloved. Other times, heart-talk has disguised an empty belly: The beloved as a perfect meal about to be devoured.

Sexual arousal, attraction, infatuation, and lust are often and easily confused with emotional intimacy. All the more so when bodily and sexual boundaries have been violated in the client’s past.

No matter the form, charitable, universal empathic agape, friendly and familiar philia, or emotionally intimate eros, such powerful energies are not only the source of All that is Good: in the wrong hands, at the wrong time for the wrong reasons they can be a powerfully destructive force.

A force that can damage and burn.

For the most wounded, it take years to metabolize even the most generalized good-will.
The vaguest impersonalized empathy is sometimes all that can be withstood. Anything more personal would be too much to bear.

In my home life I don’t stop yammering about it. My family and my kids groan “I know, I know…” when I feel the impulse, to tell them, yet again, what I feel for them. It’s been ten whole minutes since I last said it, and my heart is near to bursting again.

We all mean something specific, something unique to ourselves when we speak of it.

This is what the word, when I use it in my personal life, means to me:

It means thank you. For putting up with me. For accepting me anyway. For forgiving and seeing more in me than my most incompetent, limited, wounded, hysterical, annoying, fallible bits. Thank you for surviving me.

It means I promise to do the same for you no matter what. It means I think you are amazing. It means you make me feel better. It means my life would feel shattered without you. It means I know you need me, and I need you too. It means we are connected to each other in such primal ways that we owe each other the truth and can demand very hard things from each other for the relationship’s sake. It means that I know that you see as deeply into and through me, as I can see into you. It means being in your presence feeds and sustains me, and I will do my best to feed and sustain you as well.

It means there is room in our relationship to be my whole self – sometimes powerful, sometimes smart, sometimes nurturing, sometimes hungry, sometimes broken, sometimes failed, sometimes sick, sometimes distractible, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous. And there is room for your whole self as well.

It means whatever shit hits the fan – we are safe with each other whether it feels safe or not.

But those are my hungers, my dependencies, my personal life. No one else on the planet may have the same definition.

Which is another reason why, even when I feel a giant pink wave swelling in my heart, that I don’t say it in the office.

For me, the personal use of the word invites all of my deepest needs into the room.

And the therapy office is simply not the place for a therapist to do that.

Theologian Thomas Jay Oord has defined agape as “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.” I certainly carry at least that, and usually much more on my heart with every client every single day.

But who on earth says “I feel agape for you?”

(“The Love Racket: Defining Love and Agape for the Love-And-Science Research Program”

That doesn’t mean that deep affection, empathy, attachment, appreciation, fondness, caring, closeness, connection, heart-break, pride, intimacy, adoration, attraction, gratitude, familiarity, warmth, tenderness, admiration, philia, and even eros are not part of the work.

Even these are words too diffuse, subjective and imprecise to cure, transform, or change anything at all, in and of themselves, no matter how we may yearn to hear or say them.

Althought It may not be enough, its presence is essential.

For me, it is usually (but not always) pointless, ineffective, selfish and unnecessary to speak of it.

Yet, without it, everything grinds to a halt.

Love, in all its forms, ineffable and undefinable, is the oil that suspends the wheels and surrounds the entire mechanism so that therapeutic work can take place at all.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Laughing Matters

I laughed my ass off at work this week by the way.

At a few points, I was even doubled over, gasping for breath, wiping tears from my eyes – as my therapeutic partner sat rocking back and forth on the couch – shaking their head, flapping their hands and cackling like a loon.

In the face of death, despair, depression, divorce, dread, disruption, disability, (there are an awful lot of bad “D” words aren’t there?) we find space, on the edges of the pain, to roll our eyes, to shake our heads and goggle at the nonsense of who we are, and what we do, what has been done to us, how the hell we have gotten here, and the sheer ridiculousness of the whole kit and caboodle.

Often enough, my clients just enjoy making fun of me.
I’ll paint a pretty wide target, and happily and repeatedly climb the ladder to the dunk tank to await their best shot.

(I’ll get my own gentle jabs in here and there to keep things in balance as well mind you)

Therapeutic horseplay, testing the strength of our alliance, enjoying our trust in each other, playing with the parameters of our shared perspectives and friendly teasing about the divergences in our world views shores up and sustains the work.

“Okay, I’m going to do that thing right now, that always totally annoys you, where I start to act like I’m your therapist or something – but please be patient with me, it will be over in just a second….”

“Hmm? Did I give you any really good advice about that last week? No? My advice about it this week would probably suck too – so why don’t you just tell me more about your thoughts on the subject…”

“I hear you, I know you ‘don’t know’ what you are thinking or feeling – but haven’t I told you ‘I don’t know’ is the only entirely unacceptable answer in therapy? Do me a favor right now, and lets just make something up – or make a wild guess and we’ll just go from there?”

Shared laughter distracts us, lowers our defenses, undermines resistances, mitigates embarrassment and helps me to sometimes get around a psychic barricade that might otherwise be insurmountable.

“Im sure you are going to say I’m full of shit right now but-”
“You are full of shit.”
“Oh, yes. Well, thank you. And I just gave you that free shot so perhaps you should thank me as well – but can we please get back to talking about the thing that I aways think you are avoiding and you think has nothing to do with it? Indulge your old grey haired therapist for a minute? Pretty please?”

Laughter can set limits gently, effectively, and sets us back to the work at hand.

And there are relieving pleasures that come from envisioning our conflicts from the most absurd and novel perspectives.

When we really isolate and dissect the inner commentary issued by the Persecutory Judge – the inhibiting, Shaming Editor – the Huckster Fortuneteller that always, and only predicts doom – and all the other archetypal entities that reside in our brains and undermine our joy in life – and follow their premises all the way out to their absurd conclusions – we can at last see how asinine, how divorced from reality, how rigid, archaic and daft the motley chorus of domineering introjects can be.

We can snicker at them together undermining their power in our lives, as defiant laughter casts off the years of blind obedience to internal and external oppressors now dethroned.

A private, confidential laugh in the consultation room directed at those we fear or distrust or are battling with takes them down a peg in our overestimation, lays bare their vulnerabilities, drawing off our excessive aggression and draining rage out of our healthy anger.

The psychiatrist who works on the other side of the wall from me (a very nice man, by the way, who thoughtfully put a white noise machine on top of his book case next to our shared vent) was initially flabbergasted at the extent to which we had to go to sufficiently sound proof our offices. “What on earth are you all doing in there?” He asked. “What is so funny anyway that gales of laughter are pouring into my office?”

Life is.
Relationships are.
Healing makes us laugh. Laughing helps us heal.

When you finally find enough distance it is flat out hilarious.

The more awake we become, the more we can compassionately, roundly laugh at our our own antics while sleep walking.

Laughter loudly lets the gas out of states of narcissistic inflation – our own and others. A laugh at our own expense reminds us to cherish our limitations and enjoy our own finite-ness.

Laughter elevates us from states of deflation, empowers us, summons our armor and strengthens our confidence in our ability to win the match if not the entire tournament.


Laughter is a mechanism by which shame can be reduced or eliminated. Laughter allows more of one’s selves to get into the act. ~ Philip Bromberg, Awakening the Dreamer: Clinical Journeys

Early in my own treatment, I particularly enjoyed shaking my therapist out of the mirroring, kind, empathic “boo-boo face” that he used, consciously or not, to help me feel my own sorrows and losses. Being able to make even just the corner of his mouth crack into an unwilling half-grin bought me enough space from my own pain to metabolize it a bite at a time, with out taking in more than I could chew.

It made me feel that I had connected to him, reached him, effected him through his training, his stance, and the so serious wall of empathy that sometimes left me feeling alone. It let me give to him, offering a small tip of mild amusement for all the crap I was making him sit through with me. It was where mutuality first lived between us.

When laughter is a reparative gift it must be accepted.

A mommy puts a shoe on her head. Her infant laughs.
This is a shoe on the wrong end! This is an aspect of mommy I have never seen! Mommy feels silly too -and she is laughing at herself, and laughing at her child’s laughter. The little one takes the other shoe – and puts it on his own head, or hands it to his mother to make another joke with. This passing back and forth of joy, this Winnicottian play is where the heart of relationship takes place. Without it we will will not know that our happiness has an effect on the loved object. Without it we will feel impotent, hopeless, lost, and search, maybe for the rest of our lives, for a way to know we are real, to feel our impact, to know we exist.

Humor is often called a high level defense – and certainly it can attempt to cover up, distract, and diffuse emotional experience and intimacy. Yet, humor used for regressive, avoidant or destructive purposes isn’t actually funny somehow. It stings, or it bites, annoys or enrages – but when its not used in the service of health growth or connection, it undermines itself. It doesn’t make us laugh. It makes us flinch.

“Yes, very funny, – but listen, I think we are talking about something important here”

Over the years, several clients have commented on hearing laughter just before the door opens at the end of the session prior to theirs. They wonder if the other is happier or “more fun” to treat.

Each time I’ve said: “You often leave here laughing, even after a very hard session, or you say something to me over your shoulder to make me laugh – you just don’t notice. Pay attention and you’ll see.”

Its one of the ways that we put our skin back on, after exposing all of our raw nerves – as we leave session to head back out into the world.

Our own Unconscious and Life itself will make Fools of us all, and as we begin to take pleasure in that, we know healing has begun.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Long Run

The mudang are the fortune tellers, the shamanistic diagnosticians, healers and prognosticators of Korea. They are usually women, powerful, wealthy, feared, and living in taboo fringes of society. Many, many people visit the mudang, but secretly. Everyone does it now and then at major life crossroads, but no one really admits to it.

A few mudang inherit their position. But others are first brought to the mudang to be cured from a state of nervous collapse, confusion, soul-sickness, or dysfunction. The treatment, the cure for what ails them is to undergo initiation, and to become a mudang themselves.

(Drawn from an amazing, terrifying documentary film I saw many years ago: Mudang: The Reconciliation Between the Living and the Dead)

The archetype of the Wounded Healer, reminds us that there is a scent, a whiff of shamanistic tradition in psychotherapeutic treatment and practice as well.

Many clients come for quick consultations 5 to 10 sessions to negotiate a milestone or a crisis. Others come regularly for a year or two. Some stay longer than they expected, 5, 7 years speed by before they realize (although I have never asked anyone to to stay and will gladly help anyone leave who wants to go). Some of us climb the mountain, seeking relief for our most obvious symptoms and never leave.

The cure, it turns out, was to stay.

I’ve been in therapy since I was 19 perhaps. I am 48 now, with plenty of work still ahead.

Perhaps because I have many patients who are therapists themselves, about half of my caseload consists of people I have seen for 10, 12 years or more. I still see several of the first clients I ever met in my first months as a private practitioner. Still others see me as part of a chain of therapists who have partnered with them sequentially through their entire adult lives.

My closest colleagues and peers have engaged in similar process investing as much time and commitment. They have worked, and will work, as hard and long I have, through out their lives.

That’s long term.
Entire lives devoted to depth work.

There are unique and chronically resurfacing challenges and dissappointments that emerge when you take up residence on the mountain.

Several juicy well-articulated tantrums over the years, pitched by my own patients, by close friends (and me too!) occasionally prod me to organize my own answer to the immortal question:

Sixteen years and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt?

You spend years and years, and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars on your personal and training analysis, graduate school, post-grad training, professional development, books, supervision in all its various forms – perhaps some couples therapy and group therapy as well to round it out.

You assume most of the time, that there are things about yourself that you do not and cannot know – that you have an UN-conscious. Not a just a “pre-” or a “sub”-conscious, an unknowable, mysterious Core, filled with conditioning memories, preverbal, nonverbal and unnoticed perceptions and powerfully symbolic images. You try to constantly bear in mind that this deeper layer of yourself, is functioning with some real autonomy, under and outside of your awareness. You accept that, no matter how vigilant you are, this unconscious self will drive at least some of your actions, conscript your intentions, cause you to rationalize, minimize and blind you to over, under, mis-placed and missed reactions to events going on around you in the present.

You assume you have a shadow that you cannot see easily or completely on your own that you wish to integrate as much of as possible. What you cannot integrate, you hope, at least, to be able to take some responsibility for when someone else points it out to you. You deeply consider, when those you love and those you work with tell you some crappy, painful, or embarrassing things about yourself, whether it might just be true, a manifestation of something you might not know about yourself yet. Perhaps you will ultimately decide that it is only partially true, understandable but unfair, or a distortion caused by their history, their wounds, their unconscious. But, you try to do this in a way that preserves compassion toward yourself, and the distress you may have activated in the other.

You lay in wait, hoping to catch yourself in the act of repeating your own archaic and archetypal patterns and do something new, something inspired, rather than just replicate a gesture pulled out of your character flaws, your history, or the brittle aspects of your personality.

You are suspicious of your own bullshit. You try not to buy into it or believe it, protect it or ride its self-righteous momentum.

You also hope, that out of your daily awareness exists a larger Self, a dreaming Psyche, an intuitive Seed perhaps even a Soul of some sort. You pay attention to and write down your dreams, notice meaninful coincidences, stories and myths and symbols that speak to you – searching for clues and guidance to deepen your connections to others, to know yourself better. Sometimes its gobbledygook. Sometimes its pay-dirt.

You want to face and effectively confront what is worst in yourself and those around you, and to acknowledge what is best and most beautiful as well. To have compassion for what is most vulnerable, to appreciate strengths, gifts, and talents – and you also try to remember, that these contradictions are facets the self-same thing.

You work hard, for years and years, to grieve your losses, to sort through your inheritance, to acknowledge the past, to notice when you are possessed by impulse, raw instinct, old wounds, or archetypal energies.

You try to hold your perceptions of others lightly, to discover what is accurate about who they are, and what are your own projected hopes, and fears about who they are.

You learn to fight fairly, to work through conflict effectively, to communicate in ways that attempt to lower your own and others defenses, to help each other feel heard and mirrored.

You attempt to own your healthy aggression and use it honestly, and with precision in service of balance and respect and relatedness. When unacknowledged hostility or anger spills out passively, inappropriately, indirectly you take responsibility, make reparation, and try think about what its original source might be.

And you don’t just do this at work.

And you fail at all of these things all the time. And you accept your failures, and you breath clean sweet relief when you have momentarily found the flow.

Here is the tricky part:

No one is required to do any of this. Not even you.

And most people don’t think its at all necessary, and perhaps they are right.

A particular form of unfairness that taunts the psychological initiate involves run-ins with people mindlessly and guiltlessly enjoying bad traits one desperately is trying to overcome. It is absolutely galling to be confronted with someone freely displaying behavior one is working so hard to subdue and transcend….

Why should he grow if people around him stayed the same or got worse? Why should he become less destructive if he had to deal with those who indulged their destructiveness? ~ Michael Eigen, Toxic Nourishment

Many people never feel the need to visit the mountain in the first place.

And of those who do visit, most come once or twice, returning home with some reassurance or relief and forget about the episode entirely.

The majority of people in your family, your circle, and your neighborhoods and communities may explicitly doubt that this level of hyper-consciousness, self-awareness, reflection, impulse-control, self-examination, perception, compassion, discernment, empathy and identification with others is useful, meaningful, or or even valuable. Many think that what you have spent your lifetime doing is foolish, ridiculous, mumbo-jumbo.

Try sharing some of your real thoughts and perceptions about the latent content at a school parents committee or a coop board meeting and see how well that goes over if you doubt me.

A lifetime ago you traveled to the mountain to seek healing for some utterly transforming loss, trauma, chaos, confusion, or pain that burdened you and set you apart, publicly or privately , from the “normal” others who were not (yet) traumatized, and those who passively succumbed to the trauma or who found it easer to fall in with their aggressors and perpetrate it.

So in the long long run?

Here is what it will never do:
Make you normal. Make life easier.
Make you less lonely (or more precisely, less alone).

Here is what it gets you:
Pain transformed into service.
Meaning and purpose extracted from senselessness.
An opportunity to be creative in the face of destruction.
A chance to be well-used.

That’s all there is to show for it.
Nothing more, nothing less.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Tattoo – Therapy Tales #300

Very honored to have been the inspiration for Therapy Tales 300th, and final (for now) cartoon, based on my post entitled “Marked” about managing the transferences and counter transferences generated by my tattoo…. Mine doesn’t shower off though 😉 Be sure to check out the Therapy Tales archives – it an impressive, and hilarious collection of work. Enjoy.


Often, after chance encounters on the subway or a restaurant- or even just in front of the building when I dash out between sessions to grab a cup of tea, I’ll hear from a startled client: “Oh, I thought you were taller!”

I usually respond: “Yes! Funny – I am actually a short person!

So many questions emerge about these shape-shifting impressions – many explored together with clients when we are back in the office. Other queries play out in private or with my professional and personal supports:

Is this merely the client’s essential need to see me as “big”? Is it their projection, idealization, transference that makes me loom large in the office?

Do I claim my limited authority appropriately? Or do I fail to take sufficient ownership of my mastery, fighting against any whiff of idealization? Or perhaps am I too puffed up, inflating myself, taking up more room than I should? Do I shrink my patients, or do they shrink themselves? Are there ways I initiate this illusion? Am bigger than I realize? Smaller than I am admitting?

Is the illusion co-created, the necessary outgrowth of the role I have assumed in their lives, the innate power-differential between therapist and patient? Or an unspoken expectation that I am unconsciously compelled to live up to?

Of course, the answer is “yes” to all of it – at once and at any given time.

Thank goodness for all the belittling, devaluing, deflating content that emerges in the therapeutic process, or a gal could get a swelled head.

But the question that emerges more and more for me at mid-life, having spent all of my adulthood immersed in the therapeutic process in some form or another: What effect does all this expanding and contracting, stretching and shrinking, inflation and deflation have on my being, on my personality, on my persona outside of the office?

Can it wear out my elastic? Will I always snap back into shape? Do I have the strength to continually experience both ends of the polarity? How does it effect my behavior with loved ones, strangers, acquaintances? How does this vocation shape, prune, contort, and wear on my identity?

Many years ago when my analyst and I prepared for him to undergo a potentially life-threatening surgery he asked me, as one of his oldest (meaning earliest not elderly) clients, if anything happened, would I speak about his work, about who he was in the room, because otherwise, no one would know.

I understood exactly.

Working in secrecy, in privacy, in confidence means that many aspects of our identities live behind the veil too. Just as clients often wonder if they are “real” people in my life, I wonder too if the attentiveness, nurturance, patience, and insight that I can channel in office are actually “real” aspects of my personality that I can claim as my own, or if they only can exist in the consultation room, in co-created transactions with clients. Would the people in my daily life who encounter my needs directly, who experience my fussy, fretful, defended, unreflective, selfish, wise-cracking, frail moments even recognize the strength and equanimity I am able to summon in short bursts when I am working in a transitional space?

A dear friend who is the son of a shrink told me about his experience of coincidental encounters with his parent’s patients out in the world: “I’d look and I’d know immediately who they were.” he said, “They were the ones who were getting the good stuff.”

For the therapist, the profession, by its very nature, acts as a chronic, seductive call to hand over all of your better nature, all your altruistic and charitable impulses, all of your golden kernels of wisdom, patience, nurturance, sensitivity and generosity, leaving your friends and loved ones with nothing but cold, inedible cobs and table scraps.

Empathy-fatigue is the cruelest occupational by-product.

It requires constant vigilance and monitoring to make sure you are giving a sufficient but not excessive amount of your emotional attention to clients, even those in desperate need, no matter how deep your affection for them. Passing through alternating states of imbalance is inevitable and unavoidable as the pendulum sings and circles past center, calibrating and compensating for the emotional output.

There are late evenings, sometimes whole days, maybe even a few weeks at a time spent tapped out, mildly irritable, impatient for gratification, comfort, restoration. When you spend all day being your best self – your worst, most needy ravenous self will inevitably emerge – most likely in your intimate personal relationships – hopefully in ways that are claimed and acknowledged and that allow for compassion and reparation for yourself and everyone around you.

“Talking like a shrink” is another common professional hazard: The use of strange, jargon-y speech combined with a concerned tilt of the head, micro-nodding, an unnaturally soothing, overly modulated almost-but-not-quite-inauthentic tone of voice, with a hint of concealed impatience, an aroma of condescension, and subtle notes of repressed rage and baby-talk.

I fight against “shrink talk” with everything I’ve got both, in the office and at large. I curse, use the crass vernacular, any practical metaphor I can grab hold of. I throw everything but the kitchen sink at it. And still now and then, while sorting through something mucky (therapy-speak translation: “processing conflicted self-states”) it slips out. Soon, hopefully, my children will be old enough to mock me mercilessly when this happens – which will be warranted and helpful.

Talking-binges: My husband and close friends bear the brunt of all the unspoken backed up self-referential nonsense, mind-minutia, random thoughts and mini-epiphanies about myself and my own needs that have emerged during the week. Luckily for them, I’m perfectly content to have them only half-listen while I talk my fool head off – spilling out all my dammed-up verbiage.

Weirdly, there are also just as many moments – commonly during times when the work has been particularly demanding after some great achievement, crushing failure, or professional milestone has occurred – when the combination of the intensity of the work and the requirements of confidentiality leave you with absolutely nothing to say at all:

“What is new you ask? Hmmm, it feels like a lot, but I guess really, nothing much…. nothing really…. just work, life… Boring I guess. How is your new job going?”

I suspect, that another one of the intermittent side-effects of being a therapist is superficially impaired listening in social relationships. After concentrating intently on others all work week, I am, at week’s end, left with a kind of social attention deficit: distractibility, diffuse attentiveness, unintentional interruptions, confusional loss of the conversational thread, unwitting changes of topic – as my brain releases its hyper-focus on all the mechanisms of communication: the unconscious slips of the tongue, telling word-choices, and unfinished sentences inherent to therapeutic conversation. My nearest and dearest offer me some time-limited forbearance – before they tease and challenge me to pull myself back together and pay balanced attention. I am grateful for both their patience and for their limit-setting.

I do know that when real needs are on the table that I can usually summon my best self, listen with deep attunement, and serve as a generous friendly resource. In times of crisis I am an effective, incisive receptive and emotionally available “go-to” friend and partner.

That being said, I have become significantly harder to befriend over the years. New relationships undergo significant vetting. Outside of the office I swerve and dodge, erect boundaries and hold even slightly imbalanced relationships at bay.

Most people seem to have at least one or two friends who are beautiful wrecks, messy charmers, or substitute younger siblings, who they enjoy taking care of, where a little more care is given than can be received. Often this imbalance is corrected for in other ways: the more vulnerable friend is loyal, funny, appreciative, enjoyable and allows the more stabilizing friend to identify (or over-identify) with an earlier phase of development, or to have some vicarious experience of a larger, more passionate, and expansive, if messier range of feelings.

I have learned, often with great sorrow, that I am not capable of sustaining that contract any longer – at least not while doing the work I do, and raising young children – even for some lovely people that I enjoy, admire, root for, and feel deeply moved by.

In my non-work relationships I am ravenous for full mutuality, equality, for a balanced exchange of giving and receiving. I invest my time in people that I can turn to, who call me out, tease me, make me laugh, distract me, indulge me and confront me. Friends and loved ones who are not impressed, know that I need exactly as much as they do, even when I am unable by professional mandate or fatigue to say why I am depleted. The relationships with people who are direct and strong-minded and out spoken, who don’t ask me to decode them, are the ones that allow me to fill my belly, laughing deeply and appreciatively at my own expense.

This is what all therapists need from their intimates to keep them from getting stuck or becoming bored, boring and brittle, swallowed whole by their own professional shadow.

That’s what keeps the snap in my elastic.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Four Realms

Long, long ago, a supervisor taught me a list of the five things to talk about in psychotherapy: I think her more traditional list might have included “work” and “sex-life” – it’s gone a bit foggy – I kept forgetting her items and, eventually, unconsciously, filled in the blanks and reorganized the list to better suit my own approach.

The Past. The Present. Dreams. Intimacy (& The Therapy Itself).

It became a way to orient myself in the room, points on my compass.

These are the realms to explore, the ground to cover in therapy.

Most people arrive for their initial session planning to only visit one realm, and hoping to avoid many, if not all, of the others.

Some therapies explore only one or two areas, some spend years in a single zone. In my own therapy, around the fifth year into the process, I said to my analyst:
“I think I am finally done telling you what happened.”

Better late than never – ready to enter the room, and the present.

It doesn’t matter where we start, we will arrive at the central conflicts no matter which route we choose – all paths lead up the same mountain.

But sometimes we get stuck. Hit an impasse, cling to neighborhoods we are overly familiar with, avoiding all uncharted territory.

A broken record sensation emerges:
“I feel like I’m just talking about the same old things..”

Our real needs have crossed the borders and are hiding out in one of the other dominions.

Pick one, any one of the other realms, travel out of your comfort zone – onto stickier, messier, unknown territories, and explore the wild regions in order for the work to come alive again.

The Past:

This is the land of our ancestors, of childhood, a place where small people live among giants. Family trees grow here, planted in soil shared by many other trees. This is therefore also the realm of historical, generational, socio-political, cultural, national and biological inheritances, of formative forces and events, from in and outside of the family.

We don’t visit this land to judge or blame the inhabitants, we pass through to understand where we come from.

When we travel through this country, my function is to empathize with the forgotten child that you have most likely “adult-ified” in your recollections, to help you rediscover what a child’s age-appropriate needs are, to recall your first language.

The templates for most of the survival mechanisms you use, effective or not, were forged here. We will need to understand what tools you relied upon, who you inherited them from, and who taught you to use them.

Some learn a set of survival skills in the forest and then move to the desert, suddenly lost and helpless. Others, unable to leave their childhood world, struggle to launch and relocate.

In order to move to other lands, to approach the realm of Intimacy or live in the Present, we need to know about our inherited world, how it works for us, how it limits us, and how to forge new tools.

The Present:

This is where we live most of the time – the land of work, school, house-holding, industry, things to do, annoying bosses, disobedient children, speed-dating, messy roommates, and conflicts with our immediate environment.

This is also the realm of devastating crises, of life-altering diagnoses, of recent trauma, of fresh bereavement (although death also takes us quickly to the past, and to the land of dreams), divorce, job-loss and the ever-persistent stress.

Many focus on it exclusively, as the safest, most public, most conscious and obvious part of ourselves. When it is in disarray or disrupted, we are unable to rest, to work. This is where our symptoms trouble us, or trouble others.

This is where our personae lives, where we wear masks and uniforms, this is where our ambition is fed, or thwarted, where our status and power are inflated or threatened.

The therapist’s role in this leg of the journey is manyfold: offering support, shoring up healthy coping, teaching mature self-care and communication skills, being an “objective observer” to “bounce things off of” (mirroring), watching for emotional patterns and interpersonal habits.

If we have spent sufficient time in the past, it is easier to place present thoughts and feelings in a larger context, making way for more self-understanding and self-compassion.


If you would like to forge a deeper relationship with your own psyche, strengthen your intuition, discern more about your unknown Self, this is the place to start. We can include day-dreams, fantasies, wishes, and the ideas and images which float up during meditation, or artistic, creative symbolism. If you are the type: psychic impressions, oracle readings of any sort, religious visions, lexio divina, signs from God or the spiritual realm, synchronicities of all kinds, also reside in this province.

This is the realm of symbol and imagery. This is how we access the land of primary process – this is the soup, the collective and personal unconscious. Here there is no-sense, and nonsense. This is where all of our irrational, preverbal, archetypal bits are stored. No opposites, no linear time or order, no cause or effect. Everything is masked, coded, costumed, and cloaked. Our dreams and unconscious imagery compensate for our conscious socialized identity, reach for unfinished business, point out blocks and obstacles, personify unacknowledged aspects of ourselves, and sketch out pathways for our future growth.

My tasks in this area are clear: to help you to amplify and explore the multiple, even paradoxical, meanings associated with the symbols you have produced. The symbols may have meanings that are personal to you: “I’ve always been terrified of spiders” as well as collective to our culture or our species: fear of being tangled in fate’s web…

There is often rich guidance to find here: directions, reminders, instructions, warnings, clues, solutions and inspirations.


Intimacy is another realm entirely.

Sexuality lives here, of course, but so does any emotional, personal transaction – between friends, partners, and family members – that demands that we be openly vulnerable in front of another.

This is where raw honesty, the most primal hungers, and terrible, excruciating exposure reside.

This is where we are laid bare, with only our teeth and nails for protection.

Approaching intimacy is difficult and hazardous, frightening and exhilarating. We sense we are entering an entirely new world of communication. We may say things out loud and carefully, that we were sure we would keep private forever. We fear we might die of exposure.

There are terrible clashes, where starved, naked, terrified people approach each other, ready to fight, ready to run, and show each other their raw hunger and deep wounds seeking tenderness, wishing to be seen and fed.

Some fear they will be devoured by cannibals. Others, that their own scarce supplies will be stolen. Many focus so exclusively on the hunger of others that they forget to feed themselves. Some steal and run.

And sometimes, miraculously, deep alliances are formed after many cycles of approach and retreat. Wounds and hungers are met, tenderly and with respect. Mutual satisfaction is negotiated. Shame is conquered. This is where we see and hear what is most vulnerable in the other, and meet it with our own undefended need.

And a way is found to feed, to rest, to heal deeply and fully together.

The Therapy Itself:

The therapy office rests in the crack between the worlds. I may unwittingly embody characters, or be drawn into rituals with you from any of the realms.

Any of these worlds can emerge in the treatment room, and do. That is what the therapeutic space is for.

But when we take time to talk explicitly to each other about the therapy itself, we are actively practicing rites from the realm of Intimacy.

We stop together, locate ourselves on the map, decide how the journey is unfolding. We expose our feelings for and on behalf of each other. Needs, specific to our relationship, are expressed, heard, and negotiated. We may adjust our pace, sort out our differences of opinion or our conflicting desires and instincts to head in diverging directions. Angers, hurts, failures and disappointments between us are acknowledged. Appreciation, closeness, trust, and affection are earned. Other characters from the past, the present, and the land of dreams, may cast their shadows here – as both of us work to sort out our projections onto each other. We talk about how we are functioning as traveling companions, and decide who should drive and who should navigate for the next leg of the journey.

The purpose of the entire journey is this: To become brave and confident orienteers, to chart as much of the undiscovered country as we can, ever-mindful that vast stretches of wilderness will always remain.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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