Of Xerox Machines and Psychotherapy



I use several paradigms in my job to explain psychopathology to my patients. I like railroads of course and this analogy makes sense to most people. I point out that childhood involves laying down thought tracks that are reinforced over time through behavioural conditioning-brain washing by any other name. Being in control of your life means driving your own train over new tracks (thinking modes) that you create. Be your own engineer. This the core of cognitive behavioural therapy.

I also use photocopy machines to make this point. Your early life involved your parents as societal representatives inserting ideas into the machine and you come out the other end. As an adult however you are now in control of the device. Unlike the vulnerability of childhood you are now capable of free choice. Define who you are yourself. Be your own Xerox.

The goal of all therapy is the creation of this autonomy. If you don’t, that is also a choice but one based on being in a prison of someone else’s construction and of being inauthentic. This is the core of existential therapy.

I explain that symptoms or behaviours are simply based on a conflict between desire and external (culture) or internal (superego) controls that oppose their expression. The origin of desire is a combination of hard wiring imperatives like the urge to bond  or to be altruistic and the effects of culture which includes parenting and societal prohibitions (soft wiring).

The inserted software ideally should be an encouragement towards fulfilling the healthy biological imperative which is essentially the ability to form healthy attachments, to be creative and to be nice to others, ie civilization. Exploring these complex dynamics is the essence of psychoanalytic therapy.

The core of psychopathology, biochemistry not withstanding, is dysfunctional families who are often a reflection  of the surrounding societal environment. Naturally I think most families are dysfunctional, as even those that on the surface  are not chaotic, abusive or incestual, are capable of inducing harm vicariously.

For example:
(precocious) Child: “I want to be a botanist”. (the desire)
Parent: “You want to study plants?,  I expect you to take over the family plumbing business. Your late uncle would be happy”. (precursor to guilt)
Child: “I like flowers and pollen and the smell of soil after a gentle rain”. (possible homoerotic wiring)
Parent: “You will put your father into an early grave (more guilt) with this stinky thinking”
Child: “It will make me happy”
Parent: “And our happiness means nothing to you. How selfish”.
Child:  “Really?   By cultivating plants I can find new drugs to help others  (empathy-altruism).  I will be happy and thus be able to form a healthy attachment to somebody special”.
Parent: “And my happiness means nothing? You can help others by fixing sinks and make good money like your father (vicarious conditioning). And find a nice Greek girl to marry” (cultural based attempt to override homosexual inclinations).
Child: “I am not motivated by capitalist greed or debt driven conspicuous consumption like  dad. (socialist-altruist hard wiring). Those are culturally induced traits contrary to human nature and which induces class struggle. Plus I like blonde Norwegians”.
Parent: I thought I told you not to read Marx anymore. I’m going to talk to your teacher (threats).  You are going to put me into the ground early (guilt again).  Now go to your room”. (aversion conditioning)

Psychotherapy is designed, through a combination of insight and persuasion to recondition the brain to new modes of thinking based on introspection. Essentially the creation of a new railroad track to replace the old unhappy ones-this requires hard work and strong will. Resistance to change old habits and modes of thinking prolong the process. It is simply easier to use old railway tracks even if self-defeating.

Human beings are hard-wired to bond to others. We are socialized in this manner. Culture and parenting ideally should  use this to mold a perfect human being. This rarely occurs and so there are no utopias, only neurotics, the walking wounded societal drones working in corporate towers. Cultural and parental  programming often override the hard wiring. Of course that’s why shrinks will always have customers….

“neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in the them and psychiatrists collect the rent” (but his mom cleans the rooms).

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One Response to “Of Xerox Machines and Psychotherapy”

  1. kristina nadreau says:

    Alan, this is excellent. your twisted humor with analogies that are comprehensible. thank you.

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