In the body of this website, I write about the importance of data in psychotherapy. Data and logic combat the distortions that mess up our lives and bring us to therapy in the first place, and they cut through what might otherwise be aimless hypotheticals and blind alleys that can clog the psychotherapy process. You might want to look at this page (as well as some others, e.g. why go, why go-2, why psychotherapy, what cures, and what cures -2) to see what I mean before continuing here.
I read a column recently in the New Yorker that reminded me: 1) to emphasize to you the importance of data in real life as well, to likewise cut through through the distortions that interfere with your relationships and thinking; 2) why I stopped reading the New York Times decades ago.
In the April 22 issue, on page 38 is a one-page article reviewing David Stockman’s new book “The Great Deformation”. The first part of the article summarizes Mr. Stockman’s argument that the federal government’s “relentless campaign to keep interest rates artificially low” is only postponing and increasing what he believes is the coming financial disaster. Mr. Stockman argues that FDR taking us off the gold standard was a recipe for “disaster”, and he complains that the federal government has been encouraging one economic “bubble” after another ever since. The arguments, at least as summarized in the review, are initially impressive to my intelligent layman’s mind. But then, one can read the exact opposite, argued just as convincingly, from other equally scholarly and convincing authors.
Fortunately the New Yorker then introduces blessed data. The reviewer has done his homework, and he points out to us that prior to FDR, while we were still under the gold standard, the United States had economic crises at just about the same frequency and intensity from the mid-1800s until 1907, just as we have had since FDR. Britain, too, had five such crises between 1825 in 1866. Moreover, the reviewer points out, “recessions in the gold-standard era tended to be longer and more severe than subsequent ones” and he suggests that government intervention, such as that which we have in the 20th century – might even have mitigated the pain and duration of those recessions.
In contrast with this article, the typical American piece of journalism – take a look at the any newspaper front page – tends to emphasize what this one and that one said about things as opposed to what the data really show. And of course anyone can say anything, and people in power are motivated to say what will impress or please their constituents, not what is true or useful. All the more reason why anchoring one’s digestion of such material in facts is crucial, and this is what was so good about the New Yorker article. I still don’t know exactly what to do with my investments, but I am much clearer – and calmer – as I consider how to proceed having read the article; the alternative is frantic ping-ponging between superficially convincing viewpoints, depending on whose I read last.
We have already seen in these pages how important data are in life and psychotherapy. Look, for example, at the page on resistance in the main website; the full book chapter on this topic has some particularly telling and comic examples from daily life.
So always take a moment to consider whether – to put it bluntly – you actually know what you’re talking about. This is particularly important at the start of therapy but it can be an ongoing problem as well. One patient I saw for many years persisted in describing himself as having been “an extremely angry kid” who “held grudges”. In fact, when he got down to actually telling me about his childhood it emerged that he was not at all a particularly angry kid; in fact he was a rather pleading and desperate child. As for holding a grudge, it became clear that it was his mother and sister who hold grudges, not him. One relatively mild misbehavior on his part would be the subject of relentless reminding over subsequent weeks, even months, each time causing him tremendous shame. No one in his life, past or present, had apparently ever described him as angry, vindictive, holding a grudge, or anything along those lines, and in fact he was usually described to the contrary.
Another patient, Jenny, announced to me that she had “control issues” and could not sustain a relationship because she was too bossy. In fact, what became very clear as we talked was that if anything she was too accommodating. The anxiety symptoms of which she complained – trouble sleeping, nailbiting, skin rashes, and chronic irritability – were being greatly fueled by her efforts to put up with an obnoxious boyfriend. Not only was that my perception of the boyfriend, but she confirmed that mutual friends who knew him likewise described him as “difficult”, or worse. Once she began speaking up to him, he began adjusting his behavior, their relationship improved, and some of Jenny’s anxiety symptoms went away.
Thus, one of the first lessons I often teach new patients is don’t generalize, don’t diagnose yourself, don’t assume you know anything. Just tell me the story – any story – so that we can look at the data together. The stories might seem trivial to you, as some of them did to Jenny, but that is almost invariably where useful information lies. Jenny had to force herself to tell me about an evening with her boyfriend in which her complaints felt “petty” to her and her irritation level only rose to about a 3 on a 10 point scale (where level 10 would be “wanting to jump out of my skin”). But once she talked freely about the evening, it emerged that 1) on the same evening with any other friend she would not feel that degree of irritation, 2) the irritation started at about the 3rd of her boyfriend’s typically unfunny (to her) jokes, and 2) she often felt this level of discomfort with him. Having said all this out loud, it was obvious to her that either she had to break up with the man or she needed to speak up and tell him.
Think about seeing your physician. If your leg hurts for no clear reason, you would probably let the doctor asked his/her questions, probe here and there, and eventually tell you whether you have something going on in the leg or perhaps a problem in your back which is causing referred pain, whether you have an unnoticed bruise, a lymph problem, a circulation problem, or something worse. You’re paying him/her to be the expert; your job is only to report the data – what hurts, where, when, how bad. Give yourself the same luxury in psychotherapy and don’t decide what kind of person you are and what your problems are before you walk in.