Posts Tagged ‘regression’

hqdefault-18Before I was a psychotherapist, I was a patient, and at some point in my time as a patient, I participated in group therapy, and witnessed an unsettling interaction. (Unsettling-interaction-witnessing occurs in groups, where you spend time watching people “work their stuff out” and often “work your stuff out” at the same time.)

A new group member, a twenty-something, showed up for his first session with us, and like new members sometimes do, he presented as quiet and a bit deferential – eager to fit in, and above all, to please.

Eventually, the therapist leading the group went to Newbie directly, and asked how he was doing on his first day. He replied with some variant of “fine” and she probed further, asking if there was anyone in the room he felt drawn to, or perhaps shy to approach (this is typical group technique, designed to make the Newbie conscious of how he’s relating to others in the room.)

Newbie opted for the “drawn to” half of the question, probably aiming to sound upbeat rather than scared, and gestured towards an older guy sitting beside him.

“I guess I’m drawn to Joe. He seems like a father figure to me.”

To which, without a flicker of hesitation, Joe snapped under his breath (loud enough for everyone to hear): “I’m not your damn father.”

Newbie winced, and he wasn’t alone. That was a chilly welcome, coming from a member of your new therapy group.

On the other hand, Joe’s statement was true – he wasn’t Newbie’s damn father. More to the point, he didn’t want to be, to judge from his reaction. That wasn’t Joe’s role. He didn’t sign up to parent Newbie in that therapy group; he was a member like anyone else, trying to make himself a bit less neurotic and maybe happier. It was Joe’s right to be there, in that room, for himself, taking care of himself. And maybe Newbie wasn’t the only one there longing for a father figure – maybe Joe could have used a father figure, too.

I realized at that moment that I’d been like Newbie in my first group, too – searching for a father (for reasons I won’t bore you with), and drawing close to folks I might have been better off shying away from.

There were larger implications: I’d done the same thing at workplaces, including at my law firm, with disastrous results.

A lot of lawyers make that mistake. After working as a therapist with lawyers for a dozen years or so, I can say plenty of attorneys confuse their law firm with a parent figure, then relate to the firm like eager-to-please children. It leads to hurt feelings, resentment, anger and much unnecessary human misery.



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I received the following letter concerning the tricky business of maintaining a relationship:

Dear Will,

I’m a recent law school graduate studying for the bar exam. I just got into another argument with my boyfriend of four years, and I’m feeling frustrated and upset.

Our relationship tends to break down when I’m going through a period of heightened stress — writing my law school admissions essays, studying for finals at the end of each semester, and now, studying for the bar. I know I can get moody and depressed during these times, but I’m up front with him about my state of mind, and I wish he could be more understanding.

The problem is that, on the one hand, I’m starting to feel like the girl who cried wolf, since these periods of stress have happened regularly throughout our relationship. On the other hand, I still feel hurt and upset when he loses patience with me, like I can’t rely on him during tough times.

Any thoughts or advice you can provide would be much appreciated.

Thank you,


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.

Please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, “Way Worse Than Being A Dentist”

I also recommend my first book, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy”

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

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There are foods no rational human would knowingly ingest:  the stuff listed on this website.

Why would you eat a double bacon peanut butter egg and cheese burger with chipotle mayo?

Because you think it will taste good.

To be precise, a little child inside you thinks it will taste good.  That little child is unconscious, and he seeks pleasure.  Freud called him the “Id.”  He doesn’t think.  He reaches for something shiny because it’s shiny.

Welcome to the appeal of Sarah Palin.

Sarah is the political equivalent of marshmallow fluff, chocolate fudge, mac & cheese and cookie dough in a deep fryer.

Why does she look like she’ll taste good – and why is she so bad for you?:

FIRST REASON:  Sarah has an easy answer for EVERYTHING.

Millions of Americans without healthcare?  Sarah would shrink government while lowering costs, cutting taxes and creating jobs.  It’s THAT SIMPLE!!

Foreign Affairs?  Sarah would stand tall against our enemies and stop terrorism in its tracks while keeping us the strongest nation in the world.

Immigration? Sarah would stand up for real Americans and protect our jobs.

The environment?  There’s plenty of oil – we just have to drill for it!  Sarah doesn’t believe in global warming.  We can do whatever we want.  That’s what the planet’s there for – having fun!

What else is there?

Who cares!

Sarah would cut taxes, build the economy, create jobs, shrink government, make America strong and bring the family back – like things used to be in the olden days!  Everything would be super!!

You betcha.

Does any of this make sense?

Does washing down a bag of Doritos with a two liter bottle of Mountain Dew and a super-size bag of peanut butter M&M’s make sense?  Does it have to make sense?

It feels good.  Until a few hours later.  When you throw up.

SECOND REASON:  Sarah’s just like you!

Palin’s Tea Party supporters are always stressing how “real” Sarah is.  That word – “real” – is code for “just like me!”  Your Id, like a small child, is by definition a narcissist – he cannot see where he stops and another person begins, so doesn’t see anyone or anything beyond his own reflection.

Neither does Sarah!

She brings you…you.  Not like that weirdo Obama, who’s…well…umm…he looks “different” –  you know what I mean?

Your Id wants to have fun.  He seeks pleasure.  That’s the “Pleasure Principle.”   Your unconscious – this child – is utterly regressed.  He likes sugar, and shiny things.  He likes Sarah.

In case you need a male Sarah Palin?  Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

That would be Scott Brown.

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Here’s a letter I received recently. Yes, it’s real, but I’ve removed anything identifiable to protect the sender:

Hi Will,

I read your thoughts of the legal profession on Above the Law and thought you neatly summarized my situation. I wish I was the type of person who could expel all the anger but instead I feel my self esteem disintegrating. It’s starting to become apparent to my co-workers (i.e. I cry at work). There’s one other female associate in my office and she’s going through the same thing. My problem is I believe the negative things my bosses tell me. I explained this to my boss (when he asked why we were crying) and promised him I would try to develop better coping skills. How do I make myself not care when he goes off on me?

For better or worse, this letter is typical – I hear a lot of stories like this.

An institute director I used to work with – a grizzled veteran of the therapy trenches – used to tell patients he wished he could make the world a better place, but he couldn’t. He could only better prepare them to deal with the world the way it is.

That’s how I feel about law firms. They can be brutal, and I can’t do much about that. But there are ways to deal.

My advice to this woman is to stop acting like a baby bird.

Allow me to explain.

Under stress, it is natural to regress to a child-like way of relating to the world. That’s because stress makes you feel overwhelmed, which is how young children, who are small and helpless, feel all the time. Feeling small, helpless and overwhelmed takes you back to a time early in your life, and old behaviors can kick in. You can start relating to authority figures like parent figures, focusing on pleasing them and forgetting that you have an adult’s right to judge your own behavior on your own terms, and to fight back and defend yourself.

There’s a good evolutionary reason why children are such natural parent-pleasers. A child evolves to survive by pleasing a parent. That’s because nature can be brutal – and so can parents. It has been shown again and again that, lacking sufficient food, a mother bird will toss a new-born chick out of the nest to die. It happens in most species, and at some level, the parent animal is selecting the child that fails to please for culling.

Baby chicks are warm and fuzzy. Nature is not. When a little bird fails to please its parent, that chick quite rightly panics and blames herself – and frantically tries to please as though its life depended on it.

You don’t have to act like a baby chick. Not at a law firm.

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I received this timely and topical letter a few weeks ago:


Now is the time of year when all the 3L’s at every law school are enjoying the time between graduation and starting their bar review (at least for me). Do you have any advice for us on how to keep our sanity during this 10 week adventure and not go crazy or over-stress when the big day finally comes?



It got me thinking about my own bar exam experience – and brought back a memory from my law school days.

Close to graduation time, I was having a final meeting with a professor with whom I’d written a journal article. It was a pleasant meeting – the article was in print and he was pleased with it. He even said he was going to use it as part of his syllabus for a seminar. I was feeling as close to a super-star as I ever got in law school.

At some point I confided my concerns about the approaching bar exam. I told him it gave me butterflies in my stomach.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he assured me. “Only the real knuckle-draggers fail the bar exam.”

We shared a laugh, I shook his hand and left his office, but I knew – more than anything in the world – that I needed to pass that exam. I didn’t want to be a “knuckle-dragger.” I’m guessing you don’t want to be one, either.

The bar is a weird exam. It goes on forever, deals mostly with trivia, and no one cares how they do on it – you only have to pass.

In real world terms, the exam is entirely useless. At best, it gives you a smattering of a details from state law. At worst, it’s downright bizarre. I remember blowing a practice question because – it turns out – smoke-damaged – not charred – wood, didn’t count as evidence of arson in NY State. The wood had to be burned by a flame. Or something like that. I stared at the answer, wondering how anything so impossibly obscure could make it onto a statewide, standardized exam. But there were plenty of questions like that.

Anyway – first, here’s my exam-taking advice, handed down from my old roommate at Harvard, who went to Columbia Law School and got his JD a couple years before me. My psychotherapist advice will follow.

The trick to studying for the bar is not to bother with bar review lectures – they are a waste of time. Just take all the study materials and give yourself four hours to study them every weekday morning, from 9 am – 1 pm, for about three or four weeks.

Read the outlines front to back, slowly and carefully, then do all the practice tests, and outline each and every one of the practice essay questions. Check everything, make sure you understand anything you got wrong on the practice tests and – voila! You’ll do fine. In fact, you’ll be over-prepared, which is the idea.

At some point you’ll realize you know everything – even the bar only covers a discrete universe of information. I was so over-prepared that I spent the last few days before the exam hanging out at my cousin’s beach house, relaxing. By that time, I knew what I needed to know and it was getting repetitious.

If you follow this method, you will most likely follow in our paths and do extremely well on the bar exam – better than you have to do.

For years now, I’ve shared this advice with friends and clients. To a man, they have rejected it.

One client, last week, said “that’s not going to happen.”

I asked why, and she said “because I could never do that.”

Now I’ll put my psychotherapist hat back on, and talk about the infantilizing effects of legal education.


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I write a lot about unconscious regression – mostly how to prevent it.

That’s because you want to learn to parent yourself – to live your life as an adult, not a child, to be awake and embrace awareness so you can take charge of the life you lead.

On the other hand, sometimes being an adult can be exhausting.

At the end of each day, you go to sleep – a regressed, unconscious state.  You cannot survive without this nightly departure from reality.  Sleep deprivation is harmful, even fatal in extreme cases.   It is necessary for your physical and mental health to disappear into your unconscious to rest and recover.

You also need to play.  Perhaps that’s what dreams are – the play of the unconscious mind.

Conscious play – what the psychoanalyst Ernst Kris termed “regression in the service of the ego” – is also critical to staying healthy in mind and body.

It’s interesting that children play at being adults.  They bang away at a little workbench, or play “house” or pretend to care for a doll.  They are practicing for the time when they will leave the regressed, dreamy state of childhood, and assume adult responsibilities.

Adults do just the opposite.  When you play as an adult, you regress back to childhood activities.  You might occupy yourself with sports, vegetate with a video game or disappear into a novel or a movie.  You might sit on the beach, look at a palm tree and think about the world.

A change of physical scenery can be restful.  It’s nice to escape from your familiar adult world and take yourself someplace new, where no reminders exist of adult responsibilities.

You might find it useful to go somewhere without walls – and with long horizons.  There’s something about seeing a great distance that sets the mind to turning over new possibilities.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote that a man who transcends the conventional thinking of his time “must be accustomed to living on mountain tops.”

It is healthy to gaze into the distance – from a mountain top, or out over the ocean – and consider what might be.  You can best re-evaluate where you are when you can see a long way ahead.

The People’s Therapist is going on a vacation.

I’ll be back in a week’s time – rested and ready to continue in interesting new directions.

But for a few days I’ll let my child take over.

He wants to build a sand castle and splash in the waves and maybe read a good book.  A little sea air and a sun tan – and possibly a margarita – might be nice.  Maybe some good food and a little dancing.

I’ll see you when I get back.

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Pretend for a moment that you have been captured by terrorists.  They shackle you up in their torture chamber, where you are confronted by their fiendish leader.

“So,” he sneers, “Are you going to cooperate?  Or are we going to have to make you cooperate?”  And he emits an evil cackle.

At this juncture, you are faced with two options:

Behave nobly, and stubbornly refuse to have any part in this travesty; or

Break down and sob like a child.

I suspect you’ve played this scenario through your mind at one time or another.  Hollywood represents our collective unconscious, or at least our collective imagination, and this set-up arises with predictable regularity in action thrillers (including every James Bond movie ever made).  It seems sensible enough to ask yourself what you would do in this situation, all the while knowing perfectly well  you’ll never know for sure (unless – god forbid – it ever happened.)

The real question is – why do those two options spring to mind as the only alternatives?

The answer is that you contain two selves – the adult and the child.  Under stress, you can either resist the urge to regress and stay conscious as an adult.  Or you can permit stress to regress you, go unconscious, and return to the young child.

It doesn’t take terrorists to trigger this voyage back to infancy.  The collapse fantasy, as I call it, lurks as a temptation in our minds most of the time.

One of my patients recently found himself on his knees, weeping and pleading with his partner to take him back.  Her response, as you might imagine, was disgust and horror that this man she’d respected had collapsed before her eyes into a helpless child. His adult self might have realized you sometimes have to step away if you want someone to follow – but the child wanted what he wanted and was going to scream until he got it.  Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Later, filled with remorse, he told me he didn’t know what came over him.  When a patient tells me something like that – some version of “I don’t know what came over me” – I know he’s describing unconscious behavior.  And when we go unconscious, the child – and the collapse fantasy – tends to take over.

Once the child’s in charge, here’s how things operate:

He experiences solitude as abandonment.  An infant abandoned even for a moment in his cradle, if he registers the slightest need for care, will scream as though in mortal danger.  For all he knows, he is.  He is utterly dependent.

He goes victim and broadcasts his upset.  He perceives his scream as his only means for survival.

He is impulsive and pleasure-seeking.  He wants what he wants.  Now.  Put a shiny toy in front of an infant – he wants the shiny toy.

Essentially, the child is an infant – your earliest incarnation. The temptation to regress into that infant state is strong because it reproduces a time when you received total attention and care.  All you had to do was register your desires – any impulsive desire – and it would be satisfied.  Mom would come running – someone would come running – if you only yelled loudly enough.

My client, stressed by his partner’s stated desire to leave the relationship, succumbed to the temptation to regress, and began relating to his partner as an infant to a parent – weeping, crying, begging for the care he needed.  He entirely forgot her needs – which only drove her further away.

The collapse fantasy haunts us – especially when we’re under stress.  In fact, “nervous breakdown” is a code word for the collapse fantasy in action.  That’s when you announce you are overwhelmed and can’t take it anymore – you are giving up…and they cart you away to the looney bin. I’ve run into this syndrome mostly with younger patients – adolescents or people in their early twenties.  They “lose it” and do something crazy, or make a half-hearted suicide attempt – whatever it takes to end up in a mental hospital.  At that point, in the vast majority of cases, they realize they’ve made a mistake (mental hospitals are not relaxing places.)  That’s when they begin to see that the collapse fantasy doesn’t work as a life strategy.  The help you really want – mommy – doesn’t arrive.

Why does the collapse fantasy present such a strong temptation? Consider the trajectory of your life, for a moment, in terms of loss.  As you grew out of childhood, the first, profoundest loss was the total, unqualified attention of a parent.  Have you ever watched a young child at a playground calling for his mother to watch him do some trick on the jungle gym?   “Mommy.  Mommy.  Mommy!  Mommy!!  MOMMY!!!  MOMMMMMMMYYYYYYYY!!!!!”  …until she finally breaks off her conversation, turns, and acknowledges him with a wave.

As adults, we have to parent ourselves, and assume responsibility for our own needs (as well, perhaps as the needs of our children and even our parents.)  That can feel overwhelming.  It’s no wonder we unconsciously long for a return to the past.

The good news is that adulthood brings benefits as well as losses.  It’s a trade-off in some respects, but independence can be sweet.  It feels good to make your own decisions, and rely on your own judgment. If you’re not busy screaming for someone else’s attention all the time, you can begin focusing attention on yourself – and give yourself the care you need.

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