Insight is the Booby Prize

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.

  1. Maybe Joan felt rejected and unloved as a child.
  2. Maybe she was chronically depressed.
  3. Maybe Joan had a personality disorder like borderline, or narcissistic.
  4. 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.


8 thoughts on “Insight is the Booby Prize

  1. Thanks Candy,

    True one can learn to understand where the
    “mean” behaviour is very likely is coming from, and that might bring some insight, but it does not lead to change. The change comes from the person who endures the years of abuse. When he or she no longer accepts to be treated that way, the change happens.
    Sometimes it leads to a disconnection, more often it leads to a relationships that becomes “civil” instead of close, due to a withdrawing from emotions from the person who was on the receiving end.
    One can take only responsibility for their own behaviour and when that person tried their best to make a relationship work with no success, they suffer, and there is no need for it and the suffering does not make anything better. It actually makes it worse as it eats away a person’s self worth and it enables the abusive person to continue.

    The hope that the abusive person one time sees the light is slim. Most people who from a young age onward have been bullies feel that the world is wrong and they are right. They do not seek counselling, and when they do it is is get their point across. When a counsellors does not fall for their story, the counselor is a “bad one” and they stop coming. In general people with personality disorders which are traits and not states, do no seek counselling as they are right, aren’t they and they do not need help.

    It is indeed “when”. My question is this one “when are you ready to emotionally withdraw from the person who puts you down?”
    It means when do you finally put your foot down and say “enough is enough”. Some people walk their entire life on eggshells to prevent a family member from exploding. That is not a life you want to live. You deserve better!

    Thanks for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve made so many excellent points, Elisabeth. Yes, often the only way to feel better is to stay far away from an abusive person. Sadly, if it is a family member, sometimes the abused person never stops feeling abused, even though the abuse happened years and years ago. Even when the abuser is dead.


  2. Some therapists, including myself, use a Gestalt approach, referred to as “the empty chair” (there are various versions), but in general the empty chair is imagined occupied by the person who did harm (dead or alive) and for various or obvious reasons the client cannot or no longer confront the person (and often it will not change a thing anyway). The empty chair gives a client the freedom to throw out what they need to, and the therapist observes and later on debriefs and validates. What it does is that there was an observer who gets it (the therapist) and after the session, often the client feels that a load has been taken off as they finally said to the “empty chair” what they have always wanted to say and never did.
    It might help. My experience is that most clients find it very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Elisabeth. This technique works for a lot of people. But some people hold onto the pain because it is too scary for them to take responsibility for making changes in their lives. They feel more comfortable being stuck.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I do love your photo on the top. I so wish I could do that to one person…but of course I won’t. I wonder whether I will regret not having done that when I turn 90. A saying goes that we are more likely to regret what we did not do than what we did do.
    I bet that I lot of people love me doing it…that person hurt a lot of others. No one ever takes action. It can’t be more than a minor misdemeanor can’t it?
    Shall I ?

    Liked by 1 person

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