Plumbing the Depths of Power
by Dr. Brad Sachs
I prefer to see therapy not as a method or a technique, but as the shared pursuit of power, power that paradoxically results from penetrating and excavating, like an archaeologist, the places within which powerlessness resides, which are usually the very places that most of us abhor and attempt to escape from.
24 year old Delia shared with me the following story about her on-and-off boyfriend, Noam, who treated her miserably, sadistically, but from whom she could somehow not find a way to detach.
“… so I haven’t heard from him for a while, so I text him, asking him if he wants to hang out and he says, ‘If you want’, and so I go over there and he’s nonchalant, like he doesn’t care if we’re together or not, and we’re sitting and talking outside and trying to figure things out, and he says, ‘Why don’t we go inside and talk without our clothes on?’
“And I surprise him, I go, ‘Sure, why not?’ and I love how confused he looks, just for a moment, and so we go inside and take our clothes off and soon he’s got his head on my lap, and then we’re making out, and then we’re doing all kinds of things, and then we’re done and I say,’ So do you wanna get some cigarettes?’ because that’s what we usually do afterwards, and he’s okay with that, but I can tell he’s already had it. So we go get cigarettes but he’s done with me, I know it, and yet that’s what grabs me. He’s done with me and that’s exactly why I’ll go back to him. That’s exactly what turns me on, that look in his eye!
“And so I leave, it’s like 4 in the morning, he doesn’t even walk me out to my car, I go home and the next day I’m talking to my mother and I fill her in, and of course she’s pleading with me, ‘Delia, isn’t it time for you to be with a nice guy? Isn’t it time for you to be with a guy who treats you well, who loves you for who you are not just what you do for him?’
“And I want to say, ‘Mom, my vagina chooses who my vagina is going to choose, and I don’t want to be in a loveless, sexless marriage like you are in,’ but I can’t say that because it’s mean. I can’t say that to her because she means well.
“But, look, this is not the time for fucking sitcom advice, this is not the time for me to hear everyone say, ‘Stay away from him, Delia, he’s bad news, stay away from him, Delia, you can do better, stay away from him, Delia, just stay away.”
She is silent for a long while, staring at her feet. “Say something,” she finally demands.
I reply, “It’s quite an achievement on your part to have become aware that the worse Noam treats you, the more you are drawn to him. That is an impressive piece of self-knowledge. I do find myself wondering about it — its origins, what it’s like for you, how it might work to your disadvantage — but I do have to commend you for being able to recognize and articulate it.”
At which point Delia’s eyes brim and she begins to sob.
What does Delia need from me in this moment of revelation? In one sense, she made it easy for me by emphasizing what she did not need—in her (slightly comic) words, what was neither requested nor required was “sitcom advice”, the self-evident admonition against pursuing a man who was more interested in using her than in loving her. She knew enough to know that there was no use for, and that this was not the time for, such senseless guidance.
But perhaps what she did need was support in disinterring the genesis of her vulnerability, the locales in her psychological terrain where she was losing sight of, and track of, her power. Her capacity to begin to understand that what she sought from Noam was exactly what was persecuting her is the basis for eventually putting an end to that persecution.
Beginning to understand that she was in love not with Noam, but with being subjugated to Noam, is, from my perspective, where she will begin to find her power. She was bound to him as Gulliver was bound in the land of Lilliput. Noam was clearly her tormenter, and sometimes, for unknown reasons, we become convinced that the only way to end our torment is to turn our power over to our tormenter — which of course only fuels the torment, further inflaming it.
It is better, instead, to attempt to locate the hidden source of the need for torment, for persecution, for subjugation, which is what Delia may have been needing from me most.
All therapists want to empower their patients and all patients want to feel empowered. But empowerment doesn’t generally result from sound advice, robust pep talks and inspirational sermons, well-intended as these may be. It is in allowing and encouraging our patients to lead us into their shadows, accompanying them through the darkness and joining them in being temporarily carried away by it, that the patient’s power, and the therapist’s power, are more reliably discovered.