Good Thoughts for a Better Mind: How Psychoanalysis Transformed My Life
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
Restlessness is part of human nature. Questions like “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose in life?” have always permeated my mind. My first episode of depression happened when I was ten and, in an attempt to relieve my sadness and anxiety, I started to write letters for myself about everything that I was feeling.
In my face, anhedonia (lack of pleasure) was present. I could no longer smile, make jokes or enjoy moments with my family. As a consequence, I developed intrusive thoughts that gradually stole away any wish of living I’d once had. I developed the irrational link that if I felt happiness or enjoyed myself in any way, something terrible could occur to me or to my family. Based on this, I decided to live a “life” with no expression on my face.
Insecurity and existential crises were my sisters and accompanied me wherever I was. I built an entire world inside of me where achieving high grades was the ultimate prize: It would please my parents and I would gain more self-confidence. In this world, I started to study all day long during summer vacation, foregoing sleep and meals. Concerned with the situation, my mom talked to my teacher who recommended that I see a psychologist. Besides psychotherapy, I had to undergo nutritional treatment due to the fact that I was underweight.
The truth is that my journey through existential crises had just begun. A good analogy for how I felt is to imagine my mind to an incomplete, difficult-to-solve puzzle. In my case, there were much deeper questions to understand, questions that normal therapy wasn’t explaining (such as trauma and fears). It took me ten different psychotherapists over eleven years before I found the kind of treatment that would work for me: Psychoanalysis.
All of my previous therapists focused treatment on my daily tasks, helping me to adapt and relate better to family, work, academics, and friends. It was a more broad psychotherapy, aimed at solving everyday problems. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is a deeper therapy that asserts the cause for emotional conflicts is presented in childhood. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, seeks to alleviate the symptoms of mental disorders without focusing so much on the cause of the disorder.
Over the years of psychotherapy, no treatment had provided me so much self-awareness and reflection as psychoanalysis. It was as if I was able to find the missing pieces of my confused psyche. In each session, a new window was opened from my mind, giving me more insight and knowledge about my attitudes and thoughts and how they were able to influence my Present.
During the analysis sessions, many memories that were long forgotten came to light through the free association technique—a term coined by Freud which means: “Say what comes to mind.”
Throughout psychoanalytic therapy, it became clear to me why I had so much fear of happiness. I had associated moments of pleasure with sad events and these situations mixed inside of me feelings of sadness and joy.
For example, I remembered that before my grandma passed away, my family and I were celebrating her wedding anniversary on a sunny weekend. The next day, we received the news that she had suffered a heart attack during the night. In an attempt to make me feel better, my mother told me that she had died due to the great joy she felt at that party.
In another situation, I was traveling during Carnival holidays when I got a telephone message from my mom telling me that my sister´s boyfriend had just died in a motorcycle accident. Immediately, I interrupted the trip and returned home with my heart completely distressed.
Little by little, the fear of enjoying pleasant moments with my family gave way to an intense need to control everything around me. Whenever I felt joy or satisfaction, my mind reminded me that I had to be tense or worried in order to prepare myself against any bad news that came up. In this case, bad news could be failing in school, interpersonal conflicts, death, or a tragic accident with family members or friends. Any joy for me became guilt because whenever I was happy, something bad happened.
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The truth is, good things and bad things happen all the time. Whether we are in a moment of celebration or not. The difference is in how we react to them throughout life. Instead of complaining or ruminating over events that sadden us, we can learn from each of them. We are not aware of the strength we have until the moment we need to use it.
Psychoanalysis made me realize that although I cannot change the facts, I can change my way of observing and describing the facts. And that was exactly what I did. I was able to think again about issues that were very painful for me, and afterwards be able to see them from a positive perspective, without feeling guilty or judged. My analyst led me to understand that I have no control over world events, but I can develop control over my emotions. And that I could never prevent things that are impossible to foresee.
My analysis sessions led me to see characteristics of my personality that I didn’t know I had. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was that all the things that annoyed me most in others were nothing more than attitudes present in my own character that I did not accept in myself. For example, one aspect of my personality (not yet overcome) is my constant need for approval. I feel that I am only valued for the things that I do, and not for who I really am. Sometimes I feel invisible, almost non-existent, and in this way writing is my voice and my mark on the world.
It is much simpler to project our own weaknesses on someone else than to try to change them—it hurts less when it’s not inside us. However, it is possible to modify the way we think, feel, and act through therapy. And in therapy, there’s nothing better than having pain as a great ally for change. As Freud put it:
“When the pain of not living is greater than the fear of change, the person changes.”
What happens is that instead of cleaning the whole house abruptly, we can polish the furniture gradually. The mind works the same way. Years of limiting beliefs, traumas, and learned behaviors cannot be changed in a few analysis sessions. This requires months, years, or perhaps a lifetime because the human mind is moved by questions, and they arise every day.
Reflecting on my experiences during analysis, I realized that I used to repeat the same attitudes of years ago and that my behavior problems occurred due to distortions in thought, usually reinforcing negative emotions.
For instance, after my mother’s death in 2015 I expected my father was able to demonstrate the same admiration and interest for me as my mom used to express. She used to ask me about my projects, my emotional health, if I was eating well, if I was happy. Conversations with my father, on the other hand, are about things and not about feelings: Cooking recipes, vacations, TV series, movies, the weather forecast. He always knew about my episodes of depression, but he chose not to get involved in, or ask me about my mental health treatment. Today, I prefer to believe that he ignores my emotions because he doesn’t know how to deal with them. I finally understood that he cannot act like my mom because he is not her. They are both different, special in their way and irreplaceable.
According to psychoanalysis, it is only possible to change an emotion, thought, or behavior when we become aware of it. So in this way I can say that my sessions of analysis helped me to reflect on my own story and in this way I was able to make decisions based on the present, no longer related to past experiences and limiting beliefs.
What I can say is that I’m relearning to live. I am learning to accept myself as I really am and not as society longs for me to be. My past experiences used to guide my emotions in the form of negative thoughts due to my insecurity and anxiety. Today, I know that I can learn from the past rather than fear it.
Psychoanalysis made me see and build new scenarios for my life. Scenarios that symbolize various stages of my story that will be unfinished as long as I live. And speaking of living, why am I here and what is my purpose of life?
My purpose in life is called “Present” and it is through it that I ponder the value of emotions and share hope every day through my writing. Today, I can say that I no longer suffer for the Past, nor do I yearn for the Future. The psychoanalytic process gave a new meaning to my Present and brought light to the most nebulous moments in my story. To be in analysis is to be in a constant process of self-knowledge and the more I know myself, the more I grow as a person.