Sigmund Freud


The first fiction I read after graduating from my Couples & Family Therapy masters program was the novel by Irvin Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept. I loved it and read it out loud to Reanna directly afterwards. I was fully engaged and deeply moved each time I read it. Yalom imagines a pre-Zarathustra Nietzsche becoming involved therapeutically with a mentor of Freud’s in 1882.

Before rushing out to get it, consider my caveats: I am a therapist and this is a novel about therapy. I am a fan of Yalom’s from having loved two of his clinical books, An Open Letter to New Therapists and The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. (The Group book split my cohort–most hated it. I never understood why. It was great.) I am also very interested in existential philosophy.

If you do read it, consider a doing a couple things that helped me enjoy it. I created a Pandora station for the 1880s out of Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss. It really shifted the tone of the book to be listening to the ultra-dramatic German music of the time. Second, all of the major characters are historical figures with images available online–Nietzsche and Freud, of course, but also Bertha Pappenheim, Lou Salome, and Josef and Mathilde Breuer. That was fun to see.

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My favorite new term from my family therapy program is parataxic distortion, coined by the “American Freud” and one of the grandfathers of family therapy, Harry Stack Sullivan.

A parataxic distortion is when a current situation or person reminds you of something from your past, often without you knowing it, such that you behave to some degree as if you are in your past, dealing with that situation or person. Parataxic distortion is an umbrella term for confusions like Freud’s transference (client gets inappropriately emotional about therapist) and countertransference (therapist gets inappropriately emotional about client). It is also very much like to co-counseling’s “restimulation of distress.” Most likely every psychotherapeutic school has its own name for this phenomenon.

The idea is that there is a way in which your memories are categorical, not specific. That is, if your dad hit you when you were a kid, you not only attach fear and anger to your dad in your memory, you also attach it to a range of things, maybe bald men, short men, men in general, authority figures in general, certain kinds of places or rooms, etc.

Mostly, our memories are useful. This ability to generalize, for example, helps us avoid burning ourselves on hot stoves in general instead of having to painfully learn not to touch each hot stove. Neat trick!

But with a parataxic distortion, our unconscious memory keeps us from being able to understand and deal with situations as they are, in the present. It patterns your behavior. It limits your options. Usually without your knowing it, it makes your life more scary, sad, irritating, and ultimately isolated than it needs to be. Most therapeutic modalities have some version of this three-stage recipe for resolving parataxic distortions: 1) Form a trusting relationship with someone who has less distortion in the area you have trouble with. 2) Have a “corrective emotional experience,” where you basically re-experience your distortion-driven emotional pattern while demonstrably safe in this trusting relationship. 3) Have a “cognitive reappraisal,” meaning come to a new understanding of your behavior in light of current reality as it is. Go meta.

Easier said than done, of course, but well worth it!