< Back

Chapter 1  

Remove the Obstacles to Growth

When I was finding my way as a young psychotherapy student, the most useful book I read was Karen Horney's Neurosis and Human Growth. And the single most useful concept in that book was the notion that the human being has an inbuilt propensity toward self-realization. If obstacles are removed, Horney believed, the individual will develop into a mature, fully realized adult, just as an acorn will develop into an oak tree.

"Just as an acorn develops into an oak." What a wonderfully liberating and clarifying image! It forever changed my approach to psychotherapy by offering me a new vision of my work: My task was to remove obstacles blocking my patient's path. I did not have to do the entire job; I did not have to inspirit the patient with the desire to grow, with curiosity, will, zest for life, caring, loyalty, or any of the myriad of characteristics that make us fully human. No, what I had to do was to identify and remove obstacles. The rest would follow automatically, fueled by the self-actualizing forces within the patient.

I remember a young widow with, as she put it, a "failed heart"an inability ever to love again. It felt daunting to address the inability to love. I didn't know how to do that. But dedicating myself to identifying and uprooting her many blocks to loving? I could do that.

I soon learned that love felt treasonous to her. To love another was to betray her dead husband; it felt to her like pounding the final nails in her husband's coffin. To love another as deeply as she did her husband (and she would settle for nothing less) meant that her love for her husband had been in some way insufficient or flawed. To love another would be self-destructive because loss, and the searing pain of loss, was inevitable. To love again felt irresponsible: she was evil and jinxed, and her kiss was the kiss of death.

We worked hard for many months to identify all these obstacles to her loving another man. For months we wrestled with each irrational obstacle in turn. But once that was done, the patient's internal processes took over: she met a man, she fell in love, she married again. I didn't have to teach her to search, to give, to cherish, to love. I wouldn't have known how to do that.

A few words about Karen Horney: Her name is unfamiliar to most young therapists. Because the shelf life of eminent theorists in our field has grown so short, I shall, from time to time, lapse into reminiscence not merely for the sake of paying homage but to emphasize the point that our field has a long history of remarkably able contributors who have laid deep foundations for our therapy work today.

One uniquely American addition to psychodynamic theory is embodied in the "neo-Freudian" movement — a group of clinicians and theorists who reacted against Freud's original focus on drive theory, that is, the notion that the developing individual is largely controlled by the unfolding and expression of inbuilt drives.

Instead, the neo-Freudians emphasized that we consider the vast influence of the interpersonal environment that envelops the individual and that, throughout life, shapes character structure. The best-known interpersonal theorists, Harry Stack Sullivan, Erich Fromm, and Karen Horney, have been so deeply integrated and assimilated into our therapy language and practice that we are all, without knowing it, neo-Freudians. One is reminded of Monsieur Jourdain in Moli�re's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who, upon learning the definition of "prose," exclaims with wonderment, "To think that all my life I've been speaking prose without knowing it."