Apr 02

“Sociopath: A Memoir” by Psychologist Patric Gagne

Patric Gagne, PhD, author of the new Sociopath: A Memoir had her suspicions about herself confirmed when she was in college. From the publisher: “She was told there was no treatment, no hope for a normal life. She found herself haunted by sociopaths in pop culture, madmen and evil villains who are considered monsters. Her future looked grim.”

However, with the aid of various types of therapy, Gagne did adjust. The approximately five percent of the population who also have sociopathic traits may feel heartened to hear this.

The genre of Sociopath: A Memoir is similar to the also-female-written Confessions of a Sociopath, addressed in this previous post. But, unlike that book’s author, this one not only fully outs herself by name but also is a trained clinical psychologist.

According to David Marchese, New York Times, Gagne had demonstrated “remorselessness, criminality and lack of empathy” before dealing with her eventual diagnosis and treatment. “The desire to destigmatize her experience and also to help others who may share it (Gagne previously worked as a therapist to those with the disorder and has also written about sociopathy) put Gagne on a path that led to ‘Sociopath.’

Her bio states the following about her current mission: “Today I am working to expand the definition of sociopathy to include its status as a spectrum disorder. Sociopaths are not inherently evil people. We suffer from what I believe to be an emotional learning disorder, one which is both relatable and treatable.”

Selected quotes from her interview with Marchese:

Sociopathy is a perilous mental disorder; the traits associated with sociopathy aren’t great. But that only tells part of the story. The part that’s missing is you can be a sociopath and have a healthy relationship. You can be a sociopath and be educated. That’s a very uncomfortable reality for some people. People want to believe that all sociopaths are monsters and that all monsters are easy to spot…

The way I experience love seems to be very different from the so-called neurotypical experience. My experience of love seems less emotional. If I had to explain what love feels like to me, I would say symbiotic. So, a relationship that’s beneficial to both people involved. Not transactional, not possessive, not ego-driven. Mutual homeostasis. It’s not that I’m unable to access emotions or empathy. It’s that my experience of those emotions is different….

My gift to my therapy patients was that I was able to lend them sociopathy: Why do you care? What does it matter? What do you need from that? That, I felt, helped them achieve things that maybe a nonsociopathic therapist couldn’t have offered.

Listen, everyone has a front-facing persona. Most people use that persona as a preference: a desire to be liked, a fear of judgment, wanting somebody to be friends with them. But sociopaths use it out of necessity, and that’s a really important distinction….

I like that I don’t have guilt because I’m making my decisions based on logic, based on truth, as opposed to ought or should. Now, there is a flip side. I don’t have those natural emotional connections to other people, but I’ve never had those. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Just because I love differently doesn’t mean my love doesn’t count.

Feb 27

Movies As Therapy/The Psychology of Movies

Skip Dine Young, a professor and clinical psychologist, states in Psychology at the Movies, “All movies are psychologically alive, exploding with human drama. This drama can be seen from many different angles—in the movies themselves, in the people who make them, and in the people who watch them” (Psychology Today). He sees movies as therapy of sorts, “equipment for living.”

And, as Steve Martin once said, “You know what your problem is, it’s that you haven’t seen enough movies — all of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”

Films are so good at bringing out various emotions, they can be used as adjuncts in therapy. One professional who actually specializes in movies as therapy is Dr. Birgit Wolz, who wrote E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Healing and Transformation (2004).

She conceptualizes three types of cinema therapy:

  1. Evocative: when a client raises the topic of having seen a certain film, Wolz can look at what the characters or scenes evoke in him or her
  2. Prescriptive: based on a client’s presenting problems, a certain movie may be prescribed as a learning tool
  3. Cathartic: when a certain film enables a client with blocked emotions to laugh or cry or both

Her website offers lots of good stuff, including special articles and links, movie reviews, and a list of films organized by the types of issues they represent. Likewise, you can click on the Zur Institute website for a comprehensive film list offered jointly by Wolz and psychologist Dr. Ofer Zur.

Therapist Enzo Sinisi at TherapyRoute.com also offers a long list of mental health-related films.

The book Positive Psychology at the Movies (updated 2013) by Ryan M. Niemiec and Danny Wedding is a resource for those who want to learn more about the field of positive psychology‘s view of character strengths and virtues (see previous post “A Good Life“) via film.

Another related phenomenon to the psychology of movies is the “sadfilm paradox”—when we value but don’t exactly “enjoy” certain films. Examples given by writer Sharon Jayson that fit this category are Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List

Others I can readily name include The Fault in Our Stars, Boyhood, Selma, Life Is Beautiful, and Terms of Endearment. And of course there are many more.

A study led by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a communications professor at Ohio State, monitored the feelings of people who watched one particular “sadfilm,” Atonement, a story about the long-lasting effects of a teenager’s wrongheaded and serious accusation against a young man. Why did viewers, including myself, so like this movie? According to the study, sadness “instigates life reflection.” Life reflection leads to greater appreciation of your own relationships. Greater appreciation of your close relationships leads to increased happiness.

Mary Beth Oliver, Penn State, conducted a different but related study about the sad-film paradox. She “argues that a key part of meaningful entertainment is that it elicits a sense of elevation, or the warm sentiment we feel when we witness acts of moral beauty or characters who embody moral virtues. People flock to sad stories not for the sadness, Oliver says, but to experience these feel-good moments that sadness brings out” (Sam McNerney, Big Think).

“Elevation” involves not only happiness but also such feelings as being “moved” and having a desire to help others.

So, to recap. Sad films—a path to happiness. Films in general–self-awareness, various emotions, and learning about life.

Oct 18

“Sex Education” Wrap-Up: Wounded Healers in Youth

If you’ve finished watching (this means spoilers ahead!) all four seasons of the Netflix series Sex Education (see previous post), you’ve seen a number of flawed but well-meaning helpers reach fairly satisfying turning points in their lives. This includes not only student “sex therapists” Otis and O, who ultimately vie to become their college’s sole sex therapist, but also Otis’s mom Jean (Gillian Anderson), a practicing sex therapist in actuality, who’s eventually seen in flashbacks to her teens.

In my estimation, one of the major themes of Sex Education is that of the wounded healer, a concept known to non-shrinks as “therapists are as screwed up as the rest of us.” Although many other TV series and movies have depicted dysfunctional therapists (some examples here and here), typically it’s played for laughs and/or derision and not so much for understanding or acceptance. Not really the case in Sex Education.

Roger M. Cahak, Psychology Today, on the origins of “wounded healer” in the work of Carl Jung. “His theory is that therapists who have been wounded can provide their clients with a deeper level of empathy, patience, and acceptance. Since we’ve already traveled the journey, we’ve encountered the hazards and dead ends, navigated the detours and discovered the most breathtaking vistas.”

All the significant helpers in Sex Education struggle with their own issues. Although Otis, for instance, is highly anxious about having sex himself, he is able to offer sound advice to his more sexually active peers. O’s unresolved issues include a budding awareness of her own asexuality, yet she’s extremely well informed about the issues plaguing her more sexualized clientele. Jean, a mostly successful therapist who has experienced multiple episodes of depression, has a history of childhood and family trauma.

Over 25 years ago Robert Epstein and Tim Bower wrote (Psychology Today), “Here’s a theory that’s not so crazy: Maybe people enter the mental health field because they have a history of psychological difficulties. Perhaps they’re trying to understand or overcome their own problems…”.

Recent research confirms that many mental health professionals do have their own significant issues. In a study of psychologists “(o)ver 80% of all respondents reported having mental health difficulties at some point, and 48% reported having a diagnosed mental illness. These rates are similar to rates of mental illness in the general population,” reports The Conversation.

Similarly, a 2018 Social Work article notes that a large 2015 survey of licensed social workers found “that 40.2 percent of respondents reported mental health problems before becoming social workers, increasing to 51.8 percent during their social work career, with 28 percent currently experiencing such problems.”

Naturally, it’s important that practicing therapists seek and maintain whatever forms of help they need in order to function effectively. When this is not the case, impaired therapists need to be identified.

There are other kinds of wounded healers besides therapists, by the way. In her recent post “Are You a Wounded Healer?” Diana Raab, Psychology Today, states, “They can be mothers, fathers, or found in many other vocations. They often have a tendency to make their family and friends feel better, especially when their loved ones experience challenging times. Because they’ve dealt with their own challenges in the past, they more easily understand hardship. They also know, like therapists, that to help others heal, it’s important to instill hope so the person is able to see the light in their darkness.”

Are you a wounded healer? Raab provides this list of possible traits:

  • You are a lifelong seeker.
  • You have a strong sense of purpose.
  • People call on you when in need.
  • You’ve helped people since you were a child.
  • You look at all experiences as an opportunity for growth.
  • You’re able to find the calm in the chaos.
Sep 13

“Tiny Beautiful Things”: The Couples Therapy (Spoilers)

Tiny Beautiful Things on Hulu is a fictional adaptation of advice columnist Cheryl Strayed‘s 2012 book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. (For additional background, see this previous post about the film Wild based on Strayed’s solo hike of the Pacific Coast Trail.)

As the series Tiny Beautiful Things begins, Clare (Kathryn Hahn) has not yet fulfilled her writing ambitions; also, she has not yet become “Dear Sugar.” She carries tremendous grief about her mom who died from advanced cancer, can’t connect with her teenage daughter, and is separated from her husband Danny (Quentin Plair) but pursuing couples therapy with him.

In Episode One we see that Clare “doesn’t trust their therapist, Mel, who wonders aloud whether Clare’s instability is due to latent anxieties about her decaying beauty as she approaches 50” (TV Line). While this statement seems out of left field and representative of a biased attitude toward Clare that gets repeated down the line, the style of this therapist (Tijuana Ricks) with Danny seems different, possibly even flirtatious. The latter has actually been acknowledged by both Hahn and Plair (Decider).

Beyond this, however, there’s a lot we don’t get to understand about the couples therapy dynamics.

For example, although it’s briefly mentioned early on that Danny has met with Mel separately, we don’t know in what context or how many times. Did Clare choose not to attend a session or more? Was Danny in individual therapy with Mel before it became couples therapy? Or maybe he still has separate sessions? Whatever the case, perhaps there were appropriate reasons for separate sessions, just as there may have been inappropriate ones.

A Google search reveals that many viewers are confused about what is happening between Danny and the couples therapist. Many wonder if Mel is a bad therapist, period. Question categories include:

  • Why is Danny seen (by Clare) chatting with Mel in her office after their session has ended? (A major stressor for Clare, by the way, who only witnessed this inadvertently.)
  • Does Mel pick on Clare unnecessarily? Is Danny Mel’s “favorite”?
  • Why did Mel single Danny out by sending him that column (that led to his realization that he needs to end his marriage)?
  • Is it appropriate that Mel then gave him a special after-hours individual session? He clearly requested it, but is this the right course of action?
  • Is Danny “Johnny,” the married sender of the letter to Sugar about falling in love with someone—and is that someone Mel?

It’s left for viewers to draw their own conclusions. As a viewer myself who’s also been a couples therapist, I do have a few thoughts.

  • The dynamics in the couples sessions do seem out of whack and biased towards Danny. (But you didn’t need me to tell you that.)
  • The dynamics outside of couples sessions do seem inappropriate. If couples therapy is going to proceed fairly, each party should be informed if separate talks are occurring with the therapist.
  • Mel did show a clear bias or favoritism by sending the column to Danny only. Why not share it with both of them, if at all?
  • It follows that the “emergency” session with Danny didn’t have to happen if he hadn’t received this special treatment from Mel. Moreover, I think it’s implied that Clare is not aware of this happening.
  • If Danny has fallen for Mel, she likely has contributed to this. And if something more intimate is happening between them, it’s highly inappropriate and unethical on Mel’s part as a therapist.
Jul 26

“You Hurt My Feelings”: Lesson in Truth and Support

In the new indie film You Hurt My Feelings by Nicole Holofcener, one of the main characters is Don  (Tobias Menzies), a therapist who offers his various clients listening and support but not enough honest feedback and/or advice. He’s married to Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a writer and teacher who regularly provides well-meaning—but not necessarily earned—support to her adult students and loved ones. As a couple they’re seemingly close; they’re also enmeshed.

Think, if you will, about how Don’s and Beth’s styles might have affected each other as well as their son over the years. Actually, just see the film.

Jake Coyle, Associated Press: “Do any of us really want straightforward feedback or do we just want emotional support? That’s the rich vein that Holofcener, a master of nagging neuroses, mines so expertly in You Hurt My Feelings — a film that I very much adored. I swear.”

Have you ever felt that your therapist is giving you space to talk but little else? Does your spouse or friend or anyone else you care about boost your ego when you’re feeling insecure—without ever telling you some of the hard truths?

It is possible, by the way, to be both honest and supportive at the same time—even if you won’t want to practice this 100 percent of the time. After all, little white lies exist for a reason. “Deciding what is an ‘okay’ lie and what is a ‘dangerous lie’ requires consideration of your motivation and the potential fall-out if the truth were found out,” states Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, Psychology Today.

Generally speaking, honesty is truly the best policy. And, as Dr. Jonice Webb advises on her website, “Truth with compassion is a way to express your truth while reducing its hurtfulness as much as possible.” The following are three steps she recommends in order to achieve this:

1. Clarify your message within yourself before saying anything to the other person

2. Think about the personality and nature of your recipient. How emotionally fragile is he? How will he best hear this message?

3. Identify the best time, place, and words to communicate your message

Interestingly, Webb is the author of Running On Empty, about childhood emotional neglect. One of the long-term effects of such neglect, as with abuse, can be a damaged ability to establish healthy emotional intimacy. Beth, for instance, in You Hurt My Feelings was the victim of verbal abuse by her father. Her mother gives her backhanded compliments that sting.

Although we are not similarly aware of Don’s background, in his foreground we know he has chosen a profession in which it’s important to have a strong understanding of healthy intimacy. This film shows us that—like all therapists—he has some continued learning to do.