Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Why Is It Hard To Stay Curious?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 5, 2017

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The therapist, as Hans Loewald says, holds in mind an image of the patient without neurotic distortions. In other words, the therapist can see how the patient mis-perceives his universe, and in so doing, causes himself to suffer, and so it stands to reason that if perceptions could be more accurate, or less historical, then the patient would suffer a lot less. In other words, we, as humans, unconsciously feel that current situations are triggering past situations, and so we react as we did in the past, without the benefit of a more mature mind. The therapist, mindful of this distortion, envisions the patient with a more mature mind, and thereby imagines a patient with a more fulfilling life. This imagination creates therapeutic zeal, which in the right amount, can carry the therapist and the patient through hard therapeutic times, but if the therapeutic zeal tilts to a more self-centered approach by the therapist than that zeal can kill the treatment. This brings me to my class tomorrow. We will discuss how to imagine patients without symptoms, without being overbearing or inserting one’s own agenda. The sweet spot of curiosity without a specific agenda is the gift we give to our patients. Yet, it is hard to stay curious. Maybe we didn’t sleep well. Maybe we are burnt out. Maybe the patient is boring. Maybe we have too many acute issues on our plate and there is not enough bandwidth to think about someone else’s problems. Maybe we are  hungry. My class is designed to talk about ways in which we mess ourselves up, and by we I mean we therapists. That perhaps building a psychoanalytic practice, or a psychotherapy practice is not what we want to be doing. Can we express that out loud? Maybe we have serious ambivalence. Here, we as therapists, believe that talking about ambivalence is the key to bringing authenticity and depth to one’s inner life, and yet, at the same time, we feel shame in talking about our own ambivalence towards the profession. This ambivalence changes every moment, with every patient, and with the maturing practice and yet, how do we talk about that without feeling shame and without worrying about getting referrals. Do we pretend to always be curious, when, in fact, there are times when we lose our curiosity, when we just want to go home or we just do not want to get out of bed? If authenticity is our holy grail, then we need to be authentic with ourselves, and our trusted colleagues. We have to hold in mind ourselves, with the humanity to know that we do not always show up for patients in the way that we might hope we do. Despite many hours of training, and despite many hours of reading theory, and despite our own treatment, we fail patients, or we are less than optimum, at times. Psychoanalytic work helps us with the concept of repair. We try to repair, knowing that we are flawed. That repair can be a healing process does not justify the fact that we let people down, in subtle ways, in every hour, and with every patient. This is a field of humility. I like to say. We know we do not know what we are doing, and yet, we are motivated to keep trying to do things better and better. We are motivated to stay curious, and then to be curious as to why we lose curiosity. That’s what we do, and for that, patients are helped through the human suffering that brought them to our offices. Or, I should say, we hope for that.

4 Responses to “Why Is It Hard To Stay Curious?”

  1. Shelly said

    Shirah, your blog is full of humility and hope, but not all therapists are like you. At least that is my experience. They act as if we are wayward children who continuously repeat bad behaviors and they are there to scold us. They are not curious as to why we repeat them, just to scold. They are not humble, they act superior. They yawn, they are out of it, they look bored, and they neither answer direct questions nor do they assist us in understanding. On the other hand, they are not you. I guess it takes all kinds in your profession. When I personally thought to stop with a particular therapist, her answer was, “But you’re neurotic!” making me feel even worse about myself. I never thought a therapist was curious about me. I just thought he/she was doing his job.

    • Oh, Shelly, your comment makes me so sad. The entire point of helping people, as far as I am concerned, is to be curious about what gets in the way of having a good life. Without that there is little value in trying to change behavior. I will keep saying that, although I understand, and as you state, that is not the current standard of care in mental health. The standard of care is to give directives about how to live a good life, and hope it sticks, and of course, that is a shallow solution to a deep problem and so, oftentimes it is doomed to fail. Thanks, as always for sharing your tale.

  2. Mark said

    Enjoyed reading another of these blog posts. Couldn’t agree anymore with Shelly’s repsonse that many therapists don’t have the humility or even sometimes the curiosity like stated in this post , they yawn, fall sleep , retaliate when you ask direct question , etc etc. it’s reflective of the greater society where there is also less of both especially humility and curiosity but the focus and pressure is on enjoyment of the moment without reflection, remembering or looking into future.

    • Thanks, Mark. I would like to think that there is still interest in reflection and remembering and planning the future, but I agree that the current era, in large part, does not support this. Thanks again.

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