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.

May 30

Therapy Quotes (Humor)

The following therapy quotes find the humor in what clients and therapists experience.

My therapist says our sessions are a safe space, a judgement-free zone, but I think she only told me that to see how I’d react. Avery Edison

My therapist gets so upset when she walks into her waiting room and finds me treating her other clients. Jenny Mollen

Do you ever feel like your therapist is the priest from the Exorcist who catches your demons and then jumps out a window? Trevor S

Dear creators of every new fall sitcom: I am sorry your parents were so noisy and shitty, but can’t you punish a therapist instead? Dave Holmes

I go to therapy just so someone will talk to me without looking at their phone. Patrick Walsh

Next time I try therapy I’ll bring up how I’ve never been more than once since my need to please makes me feign recovery after 1 session. Erin Whitehead

Can anyone recommend a bad therapist? (I need a good scapegoat). Josh Comers

˝Gonna talk about you in therapy today˝ -21st century romance. Jake Weisman

Therapists are the atheist’s confessional. So long as you tell your therapist about it, you can keep doing it with a guilt-free conscience. Erin Whitehead

Therapy hasn’t really made me feel any better, it just made me understand why I feel bad. Corey Pandolph

i go to therapy to deal with people who don’t go to therapy. Lauren Ashley Bishop

I like to call therapy baggage claim. Aparna Nancherla

my therapist gave me homework to do before our next session so now I can never go back to therapy maura quint

Among other therapy quotes I’ve found is this one from Laura Munsons memoir, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is…:A Season of Unlikely Happiness:

Probably the wisest words that were ever uttered to me came from a therapist. I was sitting in her office, crying my eyes out. . . and she said, “So let me get this straight. You base your personal happiness on things entirely out of your control.”

Also, from Sofiya Alexandra‘s Tumblr:

“Ten Things My Therapist Says That Make Me Angry,” Sofiya Alexandra

  1. “Exercise does wonders for depression!”
  2. “You’re of course aware that alcohol is a depressant?”
  3. “Maybe we should consider medication.”
  4. “It seems like your boyfriend had a point.”
  5. “Maybe we shouldn’t consider medication and just stick to exercise.”
  6. “It’s warm in here, isn’t it, I’m going to turn up the air.”
  7. “You’re of course aware that marijuana can be a depressant?”
  8. “You seem angry.”
  9. “This is going to require a lot of patience and hard work.”
  10. “I no longer take Blue Shield.”
Feb 07

“Shrinking” Series: Dysfunctional Radical Honesty

The Apple TV comedy Shrinking boasts a lot of big names in its cast, including Harrison Ford, Jason Segel, and Jessica Williams, all of whom play therapists. The series shares some of its creators with Ted Lasso. It has a big heart and a lot of jokes, even if you absolutely, definitely would not want your therapist to take any cues from it. NPR regarding Shrinking

The new series Shrinking as described on IMDB: “A grieving therapist starts to tell his clients exactly what he thinks. Ignoring his training and ethics, he finds himself making huge changes to people’s lives — including his own.”

Kristen Baldwin, ew.com, calls this series “a funny, brainy grief-com about the power — and dangers — of radical honesty.” (See “Radical Honesty).

In a nutshell, Jason Segel plays therapist and single parent Jimmy, whose wife died a year ago. He’s now a mess.

During the day, a fried and hungover Jimmy heads to work at the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center, where he struggles to stay engaged as his regular patients recite their regular complaints. Exhausted and pushed to the limits of decorum by a woman (SNL‘s Heidi Gardner) who’s forever making excuses for her emotionally abusive husband, Jimmy erupts. ‘Just f—ing leave him!’ To his surprise, it works. Despite warnings from his methodical boss Paul (Harrison Ford) and newly divorced colleague Gabby (Jessica Williams), Jimmy decides to continue his ‘psychological vigilante’ approach with his newest patient, Sean (Luke Tennie), a military vet who keeps getting into violent altercations with strangers.

But Linda Holmes, NPR, believes the hyped radical honesty isn’t actually a large part of the series. Larger is “that on top of his own struggles, he has to listen to everybody else’s — one of the themes of the show is that even your therapist has stuff.”

It’s Paul’s opinion, in fact, that Jimmy has compassion fatigue; however, this doesn’t excuse his behavior. (See this previous post about a therapist in therapy and this one on impaired therapists.)

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times: “If he were a responsible [therapist] he’d have taken a sabbatical and sent his clients elsewhere, because if this is how he’s doing after a year, one wonders how he was getting on at three or six or nine months…”

So, what do other reviewers think about how it all goes down in Shrinking?

Nate Richard, Collider: “Shrinking is a series that never laughs at its characters’ misfortunes or faults; it’s not a mean-spirited show by any definition, but it is sincere. Mental health hasn’t always been portrayed in the best way across the media landscape, and despite it becoming much more accepted in today’s climate, there are certain areas that are still two large steps behind in accurately portraying it in a meaningful way. Shrinking, to its benefit, seems like a major step forward…”

But Nick Schager, The Daily Beast, isn’t having it. Jimmy is “a jerk, an idiot, and a lousy doctor all at once, and the show’s attempt to make that cute and okay—because, you see, it’s a byproduct of the inner pain he can’t face—is its prime, if far from only, failing.”

Back to Linda Holmes (NPR), who remarks, on the other hand, that in addition to its great ensemble cast (which also includes Michael Urie, Christa Miller, and Ted McGinley, to name a few), the series “is a bright spot in a very crowded landscape that isn’t always this good at taking pain and decency — and comedy — and giving them all room to breathe.”

I will probably pass, by the way. Why? I’m just generally tired of bad therapy boundaries and ethics on TV and in movies. But if you have decided to watch it, please feel free to let me know what you think! I can be open!