This year, however, there was a special sense of urgency to the gathering. Embedded as we are in a society that now seems to be drowning in a toxic stew of fear, anger, and sheer noise—terrorist threats, political hostility, social grievance, racial and economic injustice, commercial bombardment—the conference provided a genuine counterculture, a time and space to breathe freely once again in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect, and to inhabit, albeit temporarily, a peaceable kingdom of shared humane values and ideas that seem to be vanishing from our public discourse.
While the Networker Symposium may be a counterculture, it’s not a solemn one. It’s more like a combination learning center, street fair, dance festival, summer camp, and schmooze-athon, all at once. As you’ll see in the following pictures, there’s nothing about trying to save the world—one or two clients an hour—that stands in the way of having a hell of a good time.
And besides all that, what other conference would feature, as a special guest, First Lady Michelle Obama, who spoke by video to the Symposium, directly inviting attendees to join her in the Campaign to Change Direction, a coalition of citizens, nonprofits, and private sector leaders to raise consciousness of mental health issues in the United States. Mrs. Obama’s luminous presence was itself like a benediction, assuring us, if we didn’t already know it, that we are indeed blessed to be part of this wonderful vocation.
—Mary Sykes Wylie
Rich Simon on Our Trichotillomania of the Soul
In his opening monologue, Networker editor Rich Simon compared this year’s Symposium to an old-fashioned tribal gathering embodying values of connectedness and community strikingly at odds with the turmoil of a world that Simon—seeking the appropriate diagnostic label—referred to as “certifiably nuts.”
Everywhere you look in this building, you find kindred spirits who not only do what you do for a living, but mirror almost everything about you—from your fundamental beliefs and social attitudes, right down to your most neurotic insecurities. After all, this is an audience of psychotherapists who represent not only every state in the union, but just about every diagnostic category in DSM-5. Yes, we have lots in common with each other besides our professional credentials and our addiction to CE credits.
I’d imagine that a big part of the conversation outside the formal presentations at this year’s gathering will be about the collective American state of mind. Of course, there’s always been craziness here, but the explosion in nonstop media has ramped things up so much that it’s as if a pervasive fever dream is wafting over our society. None of us fully understands the tsunami in which we’re being swept along, but you have to start somewhere. And if you want to point to a single culprit responsible for our increasingly unhinged connection to what we once called sanity and ordinary reality, you might begin with our troubled relationship with our digital devices.
Most of us can’t go for more than a few moments without yielding to the urge to plug into the global information network as if it were a kind of life-support system. We’ve become enslaved to that little thrill of knowing that somewhere, somehow, someone wants to communicate with us each and every moment of our lives. And we just can’t resist the urge to scratch that little itch. It’s like a vast epidemic of trichotillomania of the soul.
We live in a world where walking down a city street has become deeply hazardous—not because of elaborate terrorist plots, but because so much oncoming pedestrian traffic comprises people with their eyes down, glued to their gizmos, fingers frantically tapping and swiping, utterly in thrall to the little object in their hand. The vast digital universe it conveys to them is so much more enticing than the wan, paltry, flesh-and-blood world all around them.
And have you ever had the experience of reading an attention-grabbing article online—maybe it’s about the election, the media controversy du jour, or more likely, Beyoncé’s latest video—and then you take the plunge of reading the comments thread, and to your horror, you suddenly find yourself transported to the world according to Hieronymus Bosch!
Then, there’s the souped-up craziness of our various collective anxieties, served up piping hot hour-by-hour by the armies of professional fearmongers dedicated to keeping our psychic fires blazing within. The most obvious is the fear of terrorist attacks—even though the chances of anybody in America actually being the victim of such an attack range from minuscule to minute. According to statistics by the people who study these things, rather than being killed in a terrorist attack, you’re much likelier to suffer the following: being killed by brain-eating parasites, by lightning, by falling out of bed, by drowning in your bathtub, or—if your specialty is solitary risk-taking—autoerotic asphyxiation.
So there you have it in a very nutty nutshell. We’re a society awash in obsessive-compulsive narcissists with anger-management issues, no impulse control, prone to delusional thinking, and clearly in the throes of a kind of free-flowing Mardi Gras of the primary process. No wonder life in America seems like a swirling, 24/7 cable-news-covered psychodrama.
But here’s our chance to take a break from that hallucinatory fever dream and prove that we’re among the few remaining sane people in this society, that we represent the thin edge of kindness and compassion, clear-eyed discernment, and good judgment in the face of the barbarian hordes thundering at the gates. So for a little while, even as we share stories about the troubles of the world with our fellow therapists, we can do so in a different spirit from the one to which the outside world overexposes us. For these few, precious days, we can, in a sense, reinhabit a friendlier, kindlier world. In other words, welcome to the 39th annual Psychotherapy Networker Symposium.
David Whyte on the Path of Surprise and Discovery
Poet David Whyte’s keynote served as a contrast to the nonstop, zombifying cacophony of the political discourse of the past year. It offered a powerful demonstration of how language can be used to inspire and elevate, rather than appealing primarily to the lizard brain.
One of the delusions of being human is our belief that we can get through life without having our hearts broken, that we can live a full life without having that imaginative organ atomized and broken apart. Whenever we’re in a new romantic relationship, we enter that delusion once again. Oh, this person will not break my heart! No, I’m sorry; you’ve actually chosen them for that core competency. They’ll break your heart.
And then there’s parenting. There’s never been a mother or father since the beginning of time who hasn’t had their heart broken by their child, even just by their going away, as well as all the other things that can happen along that way. And then they live with you for years, observing your every psychological move and weakness, and then sometime, when they’re about 14, when you have your back turned to them, the emotional stiletto goes in, and as it goes in, you say, “Oh, my God, how did you know exactly where to place it?”
A friend of mine lives in the perfect Tuscan farmhouse. I remember the first time I went into her kitchen, on a cold January night, and the walls were this glowing ochre color with art. There was a fire halfway up the wall on this plinth; there was a smell of roasting chicken and rosemary and garlic; and there she was with her son and her daughter. She was a single mother in Tuscany with these two lovely kids, and I came into their palace of hospitality, and at the same time my heart just broke open a little bit because I’d just said goodbye to my son
I’d driven him to college, from Seattle all the way to Boulder, and we’d spent four days together, my son and I, talking about his whole life and all the various eccentric initiations he’d had with his very eccentric parents. And when I said goodbye to my son in Boulder, I was a completely different kind of father. I’d reached a finisterre, and I knew, for a good many years now after I said goodbye, it would be love at a distance. It would be a very different form of love.
And so when I walked into that kitchen, my heart just broke open a little because I looked at this scene, and I said, “Oh my God, I remember this.” You feel as if it’s going to go on forever. And as a parent, you think you’re part of this endless rehearsal for this future parental entrance into being a good mother and father. And of course, the moment they leave the door, you realize it was no rehearsal at all. It was beautiful in and of itself, and you were privileged to spend this time together, with someone who’s actually still a stranger to you. And the other corollary of that is you never really knew who they were, and how could you? Because that’s what they’re out in the world finding out now, who they actually are, what horizon they’re going to look at with their own eyes.
Then you think about work and how we’re also under the delusion that we can follow a sincere path in our vocation without having our hearts broken. I think if you’re sincere about your work, you’ll experience times in which you don’t know how to get from here to there. It’s at those times you discover you have to ask for help. And there are two forms of help we need along the way. One is visible, transactional help. You pay someone to do something. You pay for a meal in the refuge along the way. You employ someone. But the other form of help, which is sometimes more crucial, is invisible help. We can think of this in that ancient, intuitive way of understanding that help can come from other realms that we don’t inhabit. But we can also think of it in practical, everyday terms. Invisible help is the help that you don’t yet know you need. If you’re not paying attention, you might actually walk straight past it. That’s why it’s crucial to remain receptive to revelation and discovery and surprise.
So some beautiful and disturbing questions to ask oneself are “What is my relationship to surprise and discovery? How much of my identity is actually able to be surprised, to be beckoned beyond itself? Where is my edge of revelation and discovery?”
David Whyte is the author of eight books of poetry and four books of prose, including Consolations.
Kenneth Hardy on the View from Black America
In perhaps the Symposium’s most impassioned moment, Kenneth Hardy challenged his largely white audience to confront the realities of racism.
An assaulted sense of self is the result of people’s soul being perpetually punctured. It’s the culmination of a massive onslaught of assaults, both micro and macro, on one’s dignity. It comes from an overexposure to humiliation and dehumanization. And it leads to defining one’s sense of self by what I’m not, rather than what I am. So as a therapist who sits with black families, I’m struck by the fact that while the white parents I see typically talk in glowing terms about what their children are, black parents often feel compelled to talk about what our children are not. “My son is not a bad kid. He’s not in gangs. He doesn’t wear those baggy pants.”
Imagine that for some odd and inexplicable reason each of us here today came with a hammer and a nail, and we all felt compelled to hammer our nail into that wall. Then when it was pointed out to us how much damage was done to the wall, we decided to remove the nails. Once we did that, and despite all that effort, what remains is still all the holes from the nails. That’s what having an assaulted sense of self is like for black people.
Since our therapeutic community is quite skilled at coming up with diagnostic labels, I’ve made a point of asking what name we give to the pain that so many black mothers feel about what seems like the impending loss of their children. What do we do to help these mothers give voice to that fear and pain that mostly remains nameless?
I doubt that many of the people here who identify as white could even begin to fathom how much they’re in the minds of black people every day of our lives, as we make decisions about what to say and what not to say, what to wear and what not to wear, so you won’t think a certain way about us. It’s hard to talk about this issue because it often gets silenced in subtle ways by questions like, “Why are you so angry? Why are you not a team player?” But my concern as a therapist is how we can learn more fully to recognize that we’re entangled in a massive web of mutuality. Whether we like it or not, we’re inextricably tied together, and the fate of my life affects the fate of your life—and yours, of mine.
As therapists, I’m hoping that you recognize that there’s a critical distinction to be made between our work and our job. It may well be that in your job, you don’t interface with people of color. But I hope it wouldn’t be true of your work, because our work is what we do on behalf of humanity. Our work is what we do to make sure that we leave this planet a little bit better, a little more advanced. So even if it isn’t your job, I hope you’d make talking about race your work.
White people often say to me, “Why do you always have to speak about race? Why do you always have to bring up race? Why?” I’ve never had a good response, but now I do. I bring it up because you don’t, and I solemnly swear to you that I’ll bring it up less, if you solemnly swear to bring it up more. We’re all healers after all, and healers are visionary. The healer is the person who looks at what is and says, “That’s not the way it has to be.” The healer recognizes that the impossible is indeed possible, and though it may take a while, the healer recognizes that there’s always a place and a space to allow untold stories to be heard. And above all, the healer recognizes that as therapists, we’re in the hope-manufacturing business, and it’s our duty, our task to maintain hope, even in places where hope has long since ceased to exist.
Kenneth Hardy, PhD, is director of the Eikenberg Institute for Relationships and professor of marriage and family therapy at Drexel University.
Susan Johnson on the Dance of Sex
Saturday Keynoter Susan Johnson, the originator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, used the tango to demonstrate the qualities of embodied attunement and emotional engagement that inform both good therapy and satisfying sexuality.
Passion is attachment longing—the longing for emotional connection twined with attunement and erotic exploration and play. Passion is about so much more than responding to novel stimuli or ramped-up lust. In the dance of sex, passion can be constantly renewed, not simply by finding more exotic sexual positions (although who can resist being intrigued by the positions in the new Joy of Sex, such as Wailing Monkey Climbing Tree) but by changing the level of our engagement in the moment and with our lover. If we really understand love, we can also understand how to shape lasting passion.
In today’s world, we’re surrounded by impersonal sex—to the point where young men are routinely seeking help because, having conditioned their brains every day since the age of 12 to respond to porn sex images, they can’t get an erection with their girlfriends. We’re also regularly told that sex in long-term relationships is almost always “vanilla,” bland. To be spicy at all, it just has to be ramped up with constant novel stimuli, new lovers, rougher sex, new toys. So let’s look at the difference between impersonal—what I call avoidantly attached sex—and sex that’s infused with emotion and attachment.
This focus on emotional safety may be a particularly crucial defining element in sex for women. If you expose men and women lying in brain-scan machines to explicit or subliminal sexy pictures, everybody’s brain lights up. But only in women does the cortex—the judgement/control center of the brain—light up. Women’s brains naturally pair up desire and safety concerns. Makes sense! Sexual intercourse is literally much riskier for women. So women most often need to check out the relationship context—to talk as part of foreplay before allowing themselves to descend into conscious, active desire. Women, in particular, may be physically aroused (their body registers a cue as sexually relevant) but may not necessarily translate this into explicit desire—wanting to have sex.
All the new evidence is that women are more sensitive to relational context—safety!—and so for them, desire often follows arousal, versus the classic model of sexuality, where desire comes first. Desire is in response to interactions with their partner. Note: this means that a woman can be totally healthy and normal and never experience spontaneous sexual desire. This research helps me explain to a husband that the fact his wife doesn’t come on to him or instantly respond to any sexual signal isn’t a sign that she doesn’t desire him—and that the emotional context he creates is key in moving her into a sexual space. The way he demands sex actually activates her sexual brakes—pushes her out of sexual and into safety/survival mode. He needs to get curious about what context cues activate her sexual accelerator.
Bonding science says that a loving relationship also offers us a secure base to go out from. What this says to me is that great sex is a “safe adventure.” Thousands of studies show that safe emotional connection fosters curiosity and confident exploration. Think of a zip line: the freedom, the exhilaration you feel comes precisely from knowing you’re on a line and you’re held. Would you be screaming, “Weeeeee!” if you weren’t sure that the line would hold?
Hundreds of attachment studies show that safe emotional connection is the opposite of deadening, in or out of bed. Security increases risk-taking and spontaneity. A secure base allows us to play, to learn, to explore each other’s bodies and minds. Thrilling sex is about being secure enough to surrender to the moment—to let go and see what happens.
Susan Johnson, EdD, the developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples and Families, is the director of The International Center for Excellence in EFT and author of Love Sense.
William Doherty on the Wisdom of Mad Men
William Doherty’s dinner address explored not only the role that psychotherapy played in the culture of the late ’50s and ’60s, the era depicted in the acclaimed TV series Mad Men, but also how our profession can reassert its cultural relevance by deepening its vision of what constitutes a meaningful life in today’s world.
For the past century, we therapists have been influential in shaping the culture’s ideas about the self. Freud gave us the idea of the conflicted self, at war within, to which therapy offered the promise of modest gains in the ability to love and work. But in the expansive ’60s, that Freudian self was replaced by the liberated self, the actualized self, the I’m-okay-you’re-okay self. This was a self freed from oppressive shoulds and obligations, an accumulator not so much of material goods, but of experiences and relationships.
By the 1990s, the culture had begun to turn away from psychotherapy as the guardian of life’s meaning and the definition of selfhood. The culture icons became successful business executives like Donald Trump and internet entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. Wisdom came from business consultants like Stephen Covey. Within our profession, we accepted the medical model of psychotherapy, talking about DSM conditions and evidence-based practice, hemmed in by HMOs and insurance panels. In our post-9/11 world, we’ve now entered an era of anxiety and grievance. Preoccupied with terrorism, the threat of immigration, and income insecurity, some are now turning to demagogues and “strong men” to tell us that we can be great again, without sacrifice and introspection and openness to the Other. So how can we therapists speak to the anxieties and aspirations of the early 21st century? I’d like to suggest that a new cultural idea of the self is emerging, and that we can help shape it.
The ideas of the conflicted self and the liberated self each offered something, and still do, but not enough for the challenges we face today. I think we can offer a new possibility: the connected self, which is connected in three ways. First, it’s connected within—the integrated self of mind, brain, and body. In recent years, we’ve learned so much about how we function as embodied minds and mindful bodies. But while movements like mindfulness may be a beachhead into influencing the culture, it’s not enough. So the second dimension of the new connected self is the relational self. We’re inherently relational. Look at the work in attachment-oriented therapies, going deeper than the shallow connections of the internet era, and the family-systems therapies, showing how we’re all dance partners, never soloists.
But there has to be a third dimension to the connected self, without which the other two will lapse back into rootless individualism. I think we’ve advanced enough as a field to make a case for what I call the committed self, emphasizing not only individual expressiveness and social connection, but obligations to family and community. A new ideal of the self has to have an ethical dimension, or else mindfulness will just be self-soothing and relationships will be like styles of clothing, to be worn or discarded when they don’t meet our needs.
But to have an impact on the culture, we have to engage the internet and the commercial culture of marketing to serve higher purposes. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that we have to engage this 21st-century culture actively, and on our terms, or we’ll have to accept continuing irrelevancy in the conversation about what it means to live a meaningful human life.
As therapists, we spend our days connecting deeply with our fellow human beings, who let us in on their lives like no one else. We have the resources to share what we’ve learned in this crucible of human suffering, capacity, and hope, so that we can once again become culture-shapers in a world that needs us badly.
William Doherty, PhD, is a professor and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota.
Rick Hanson on How Hard Times Can Open the Heart
In a moving closing address, Rick Hanson invoked the spirit of Mr. Rogers to help attendees better acknowledge their connection with each other and savor their most inspiring Symposium experiences at the meeting.
Life is often a hard trail—and nonetheless, hopefully a long one.
To walk it with joy and love and peace, we all need refuges: people and places and activities that repair and refuel us, that give us sanctuary.
Refuges like finally getting home and being able to sleep beside your wife. Like a chocolate chip cookie, a hot shower, a quiet sunset, or a poem from David Whyte. Classic refuges of wisdom teachings, sacred places and practices. Art and beauty. Reason and science.
What feeds your own heart?
And of course there are the refuges of those who have loved us. This is the primal refuge, the universal medicine, since feeling loved takes care of all three of our core needs at once: it’s a deep source of safety, a rewarding and satisfying experience, and a strong sense of connection.
For example, Fred Rogers—Mr. Rogers to millions of children and adults—once said, “When I was a boy and I’d see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You’ll always find people who are helping.’”
There’s a remarkable YouTube video of Mr. Rogers accepting an Emmy for lifetime achievement. After the expected and genuine thank-yous to his wife and others, he paused and looked around the hall. It was filled with several thousand people, most of them in gowns or tuxedos, glittering, polished, and beautifully masked in their own ways. He said that each person was there because “someone has loved you into being.” Then he asked for ten seconds of silence to remember that someone, tapping his watch with a smile and saying in that Mr. Rogers way, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep time.”
As you can see in the video, at first many people were startled and guarded. But then the masks began to drop and for 10 long and powerful seconds, the tears began to flow.
Who has loved you into being? As Mr. Rogers showed, even a few seconds of openhearted reflection about this can be deeply moving. And as therapists or people in related professions, we can probably stay with this practice even longer, perhaps a minute or more.
And also, whom have you loved into being? Loved into being with your attention, compassion, interest, restraint, skillfulness, generosity, support, guidance, affection, respect, or love? Friends, family, children, pets, students, clients, strangers to whom you gave an unguarded smile, people on the other side of the world? Here, too, you can take a few seconds or longer to open to and rest in and sink into the sense of caring about some of the many people that you have loved into being.
As a psychotherapist, one of the great refuges for me has been the feeling of fellowship with others in the helping professions. The sense of this can be concrete as you speak with a colleague, or sit among others at the Symposium. The sense of camaraderie, of shared values and actions, may be more abstract, but still real, as you read this magazine or think about the millions of people worldwide who are deeply engaged with the care of others.
At this time in human history, it’s all too easy to see the “them-ness” of others, and then to stop looking. So there’s nothing more important than to find refuge, again and again, in the “us-ness” of the person sitting next to you, or across the street, or across the world.
Rick Hanson, PhD, is a neuropsychologist, bestselling author, and Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.