You know that feeling you get when you tell a joke one too many times and everyone just looks at you, or when you come out with what you think at the time is a smart or witty comment only to realize seconds later that what you just said was in fact incredibly dumb? Well I get that feeling all the time – just about every time I open my mouth. I try to connect with people, to get on with them – even to get some kind of recognition or approval from them – but all I ever do is draw a blank. It’s like I’m some sort of misfit.
Things got so bad that I even started feeling like someone who didn’t fit in even when there was no one else there to fit in with. I found myself feeling like a misfit even when I was on my own. This is when I made the decision to go and get therapy. I got the number of an existential psychotherapist who had a practice in town and – with much apprehension – made an appointment to see her. Deep down I have to admit that I didn’t really believe that seeing a psychotherapist would do me any good but I felt that I didn’t have any choice at this stage. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to spend the rest of my life walking around feeling like a total and utter plonker the whole time.
Sitting there in the consulting room facing the psychotherapist (whose name was Annette) I launched into an explanation of my situation. I was amazed at how quickly Annette picked up on what I was saying. “Nick,” she said, “I can tell you straightaway what your problem is. You are totally inauthentic – you’re not in touch with your true self at all. It’s all just an act with you and that act has worn so thin that it isn’t fooling anyone, not even yourself…”
She gave me a moment to chew on this then continued with her appraisal, “your existential predicament is that you have tried so hard to find acceptance with the social milieu that you have become a walking, talking cliché. Nothing you say or do has any authenticity any more. You have tried so hard to be normal and accepted by other people that you have lost yourself. You’ve put so much energy into conforming to society that you have become a generic human being.”
Needless to say, this was very hard for me to hear. To say that I was having serious problems with her appraisal of me would be to put it mildly. “But that’s just not true,” I replied, in what I can only describe as a state of stunned disbelief , “I’m a genuine individual, I guarantee you. I’m not ‘putting on an act’. I promise you I’m not…”
This response cut no ice with Annette. She was even starting to smile a bit, as if she found my protestations of authenticity amusing. “That’s not even you saying that, Nick.” she told me, “that’s just your socially-adapted ego-personality talking for you, answering on your behalf. What you just said is just an automatic response, a knee-jerk reaction designed to deflect attention away from the fact that you feel uncomfortable hearing me say that you’re being inauthentic. Why does this make you feel so uncomfortable?”
This floored me for a minute. You can’t win with a psychotherapist, I reflected. They have a smart answer for everything. No matter what argument I came out with she was going to tell me that it was only my resistance to hearing the truth, my tell-tale automatic attempt to distract myself from feeling the pain of hearing the truth. How could I win against this?
Annette broke into my thoughts at this point. “You don’t have to deflect you know. Deflecting is only a habit, it’s only a reflex behaviour. Why not explore not deflecting for a change?”
“But I’m NOT deflecting…” I retorted with obvious irritation, and then realized a fraction of a second later that I had walked right into a trap. “You just deflected just there!” she accused me with a smile. “When you said that you weren’t deflecting that was a classic deflection…” I said nothing. Anything I said would be used against me anyway so I just held my tongue. I had learned this much, at least…
The rest of the session passed by equally fruitlessly. I paid Annette her sixty Euros fee and walked out, having made an appointment to come and see her at the same time the following Thursday. Making my way down Dominick Street from where she had her consulting rooms on the Crescent I found myself immediately regretting making another appointment. The whole thing was a waste of time. If this was existential psychotherapy, then it was a waste of time as far as I was concerned. It was mind game – a mind game, moreover, that I was destined to lose every time. After all, everything I said was a deflection, according to Annette. That was obviously a load of nonsense – how could EVERYTHING be a deflection?
All of a sudden my confidence wavered. I longer felt quite so sure of myself. ‘Maybe she’s right.’ came the unwelcome thought. ‘Maybe everything is a deflection?’ Maybe my whole life is an act?’
Then – with an effort – I pulled myself back up from the precipice of self-doubt. I came back to myself a bit. “That’s complete and utter bullshit!” I said to myself. “That couldn’t possibly be true…”