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Archive for March, 2012

A visit to my office has evolved into something akin to the road to Lourdes. Pilgrims arrive red-eyed and defeated, faces etched with misery, searching for a way out of a trap.

The standard story is some variant of the following: You are either out of work or loathe your work. You have $180k in loans. You have either no income or an impermanent income paid to you in exchange for any joy life might offer. You see no hope.

Let me spell out the critical element here: You are one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in debt.

Just to fully drive the point home: that’s bankruptcy-proof debt.

You’ve yelled at your parents, but it’s not really their fault. You’ve wept and wailed and gotten drunk and stoned and consumed a script of Xanax. You’ve tried sleeping and pretending you don’t have to wake up.

Then comes the pilgrimage. Perhaps I can heal with a laying on of hands.

Okay, here’s the feedback I’ll receive for what I’ve written so far:

You’re exaggerating. You’re bringing me down. Law isn’t so bad. I love law.

Yeah, well good for you. I’m not exaggerating.

It’s their own damn fault. No one made them go to law school.

Yes. They. Did. Stop kidding yourself – the entire system is engineered to lead smart, conscientious kids exactly where it leads them. And get off it already with the no sympathy/blame the victim routine.

How bad are things? How many times can I pose that (at this point rhetorical) question?

Young lawyers look me in the eye and ask, how am I supposed to carry on with my life? What they mean is – how is one supposed to live a life worth living – a life that satisfies one as a human being – trapped in the hell of law and law school loans?

Sometime, I ask them what they would be doing with their lives, if they didn’t have loans. Here are some of their answers:
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I received the following letter from “S”:

This is the situation: my boyfriend of three years is an overachiever. He attended the best schools and now works in NYC. He’s in finance, from his personal office he sees most of Central Park, and I love him very much. As for me, I am currently studying for the Bar Exam. I’ll probably pass, but it’s not like I’m very confident about it. I do not have either the background or the grades to make it to a big law firm, and I am uncertain about what to do with my career. When I’m with my boyfriend, I can’t help but to compare my situation with his, and even though I don’t want to admit it, I’m jealous. My boyfriend never pressured me, and he is 100% behind me, but I still feel like a loser. How to deal then when people in your entourage succeed and you feel you’re the only one having to catch up?

Thank you, S

And here’s my response:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist.
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If you’re interested in learning more about the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of psychotherapy, you might enjoy my first book, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy”

My second book takes a humorous look at the current state of the legal profession, “Way Worse Than Being A Dentist”

(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.) 

For information on my private practice, click here.

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At Barnes & Noble, where I once worked as a marketing exec, we bandied about the phrase “aspirational purchase” to portray a small, but profitable segment of our sales.

Aspirational purchase meant you bought the book not because you were going to read it, but because you aspired to read it. You might even convince yourself you were going to – but in all likelihood it would serve as a pretentious coffee table tchotchke, an impressive (if un-cracked) spine on a decorative bookshelf, or a useful device to prop up a little kid’s butt so he could reach the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.

An aspirational purchase is intended to impress – you want to be seen buying it. It tends to be something conservative as well. And long. And difficult. “War and Peace” is the classic aspirational purchase, but you might also pick up something with a political message that makes you look wise and open-minded, like “The Satanic Verses” (which, for the record, I actually read.) (No, I’ve never plumbed War and Peace. However, I embrace the fact that plenty of you certainly have read it and, yes, loved it and desire for me to acknowledge you’ve read it and how much you loved it – to which I reply, in advance, how very nice for you.)

Law school is an aspirational purchase.

You choose law because it’s more impressive than an internship or “assistant” job – which is how you’d have to start out in an ordinary career. With law you jump directly to the land of the grown-ups without passing Go. From the moment you graduate, you have a “profession.” That means (at least in theory) you wear a suit and people take you seriously. You’re an “attorney” – not someone’s assistant.

Law is conservative, too. It’s about the least imaginative thing you could do. A law degree establishes (at least in theory) that you are serious and focused and down-to-business. No more staying up all night partying for you. It’s time to retire that giant plastic bong with the “Steal Your Face” decals and step up to adulthood, dude.

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On my private practice website it says, right after my name, “Integrative Psychotherapy.” A number of people have asked me what the heck that means. Good question.

There’s room for argument, but so far as I’m concerned, there are two chief meanings.

The first is a bit technical.  It means I integrate the two leading schools of psychotherapy – psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral – into one eclectic approach.

Huh?

You can think of the two schools as vertical versus horizontal.

Psychodynamic work is vertical.  It involves digging down into your past, looking for the root sources of your behaviors.  When I work psychodynamically, I’m wondering when you started thinking or feeling a certain way.  I want to make you aware of how the environment in which you grew up shaped the person you are.

If you always seem to expect honesty to be received with punishment, and so avoid telling people what you really think, I’ll wonder where that pattern started.  Maybe you had a punishing parent, who responded harshly to being told the truth because she had trouble tolerating the reality of a situation.  You may have observed that response to you when you were a kid, spotted a feedback loop of sorts (telling truth = bad response), and formed expectations.  These expectations let you to adapt a strategy for survival (avoid telling truth = avoid bad response.)  These sorts of strategies – learned behaviors – may continue to take over unconsciously today and lead you to sabotage your conscious goals in life.  To address that situation, you need to understand where and when they started, so you can decide if you’d like to abandon learned behaviors which have become maladaptive to your life as an adult.

Cognitive-behavioral work, in contrast,  is horizontal.  I’m not so worried about the source of the behavior – I’m dealing with the here and now, trying to make you more conscious of your current thoughts and how they’re controlling your actions.

If you have a phobia about flying in airplanes, I will likely employ cognitive-behavioral techniques to make you conscious of the thoughts – predictions – that are frightening you.  These thoughts are like tapes that play in your head – if you become aware of them, you can turn them off, and play another tape that will soothe you instead of freaking you out.

You might have a fear of plunging from a great height if a plane crashes.  Once you understand that thought, you can reality-test it.  Yes, it could happen that you would plunge in a plane accident, but it is exceedingly unlikely, since you’d most likely die quickly or fall unconscious – and in any case, it might be a risk worth taking, once you balance the enormous benefits of air travel against the very small risks of a crash.   You could learn to formulate counter-messages to address frightening thoughts, perhaps something like “I’ve chosen to take a tiny risk because I want to see the world.  I’m okay with that small risk, and can relax now and accept that I cannot control everything, and there is risk involved in all aspects of life – risk that need not lock me up in fear.”

Some psychotherapists – especially in the past – fought over the superiority of psychodynamic versus cognitive-behavioral approaches.  That’s mostly old-hat at this point.  The two techniques are considered tools in a toolbox – options for treatment, depending on what the therapist thinks is most likely to be effective and useful for the individual client in question.  They are often complementary – two great psychotherapeutic approaches that taste great together.

Modern psychotherapy at its best is integrative, and eager to accept diverse, worthy approaches.  Speaking for myself – I’ll use anything that works and helps my clients.

The second meaning of “integrative” with regard to psychotherapy refers to the greater purpose of the entire exercise – to integrate the unconscious into the conscious ego.

Huh?

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