A character in the novel Today Will be Different, by Maria Semple, said about psychotherapy:
Change is the goal. Insight is the booby prize.
It reminded me of what I tell people when they ask, “Why isn’t my wife romantic?” or “Why is my sister always mean to me?” or “Why can’t my husband stop demanding that the house be spotless?”
Will answering these questions make their lives better?
The husband doesn’t want to know why his wife isn’t romantic with him. He wants her to crave him. The sister wants a loving sister, even though that type of relationship has never existed between them. The wife doesn’t want to know why her husband has obsessive-compulsive tendencies that torture her and the kids. She wants him to knock it off.
But isn’t psychotherapy about gaining insight into the motivations and behaviors of ourselves and others?
Let’s take Alicia as an example. (Not her real name.)
Alicia’s only sister, Joan, has always insulted her, belittled her in front of friends, and badmouthed her to relatives. As a child, Alicia coped with it by knowing that her father adored her. She decided that Joan was jealous. Her behavior made sense. That was Alicia’s story # 1.
Years went by. Joan married and had children. Alicia never did.
Alicia coped with her sister’s abuse by doting on Joan’s children. She showered them with gifts and went to holiday gatherings, even though every party ended with Joan’s cruelty and Alicia’s tears. But Alicia consoled herself with the love she received from her nieces and nephews. That was Alicia’s story # 2.
More years went by. The children grew up and moved away. They spoke to Alicia less and less. One by one they stopped calling.
Alicia was aging alone, with failing health and finances.
She didn’t want to connect with new people in her life. She wanted an answer: Why is my sister so mean to me?
I asked Alicia, “How would your life improve if you knew why Joan was so mean?”
“I’d understand,” she said. “It would make sense and I’d be able to move on with my life. I mistrust everyone because of her. She’s the reason I don’t have friends.” Alicia’s story # 3.
We speculated endlessly over why Joan was so mean.
- Maybe Joan felt rejected and unloved as a child.
- Maybe she was chronically depressed.
- Maybe Joan had a personality disorder like borderline, or narcissistic.
- Maybe she was a sociopath, with no empathy for other people.
Every time we came up with a new answer, Alicia said, “Now I understand why Joan is the way she is. I can move on.”
But Alicia didn’t.
Over and over, for years and years, she made the same complaints and asked the same questions.
The truth is, any explanation for another person’s behavior (and our own behavior) is a story we tell ourselves, a fiction. A psychiatric diagnosis is a type of fiction that enables a doctor to get paid by the insurance company. It can also put a client in a category so that a psychotherapist can use a guideline to try and help them.
But they’re all stories. And insight, while occasionally interesting, sometimes comforting, and possibly motivating, is still the booby prize.
The only goal is change.
The question isn’t: why?
The question is: What do I do differently, right now? Or How do I get what I want?
And, as Rabbi Hillel said 2,000 years ago: If not now, when?
When you ask the right questions, you’re on the road to change.