I’m a huge In Treatment fan. That’s the HBO TV series that dramatizes the experience of psychotherapy. The show follows a therapist with his various patients, one session per patient per week.
I’m a therapist who thinks the show gets therapy right. I consider the main character, therapist Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), an excellent practitioner, and I even think I’ve learned as much about therapy by rewatching episodes as I learned in much of grad school.
If you want to own some tapes full of drama and wisdom, go ahead and buy the DVD set, here.
This week, one patient on the show displayed a personality tic that a lot of us can probably relate to. Frances (Debra Winger) is an aging actress who gets much of her self-esteem from external sources. She loves the praise of an audience; she’s competitive with people close to her (needs a victory to prove her value); and she’s highly invested in her physical beauty. Her ego is fed by others, and she has a harder time feeling self-worth in solitude.
In last week’s episode, she did something that’s common, I think, for people who are especially dependent on external voices for self-esteem. She insulted herself frequently when she spoke—started sentences with little performances of self-battery: “You must think I’m an idiot, but yesterday, I…” or “You must think I’m vain, but I….”
Part of the reason for the linguistic tic was that she was fishing for praise; she was also fending off unexpected judgments. Her tendency here got me thinking about the various ways in which many of us do this. I’m thinking of bigger statements of self-abuse, too: “I failed as a painter” (before showing someone your painting) or “I’m a horrible friend, don’t you think?” I’m wondering why some of us insult ourselves in performative ways, in public.
So: For Today: A List of Possible Reasons Why We Overstate Our Failings in a Public Way:
- Sometimes some of us overstate our failings in front of others because we’re attuned to context. I’m thinking of art: If you put a pale image in front of a white background, it looks pale, but if you put it in front of a black background, it looks bright. I can say “I suck at writing” before showing someone a short story I wrote. Expecting something bad, the reader might counterbalance my self-criticism with my fantasized response: “That’s not bad – that’s pretty good, really!”
- Sometimes we overstate our failings in order to control the timing and focus of someone’s opinion. It takes a confident person to be open to criticism from any one at any time on any aspect of life. But for fragile people who still want feedback, it’s possible to tightly circumscribe the timing and focus of praise by asking for it when you’re ready: “You think I complain too much, right?” That person is preparing for attack by setting a fence around what can be judged, and when.
- Saying you suck at something is also a well-planned piece of a two way interaction that in usual conversation will trigger a compliment. When you say, “I suck,” and if both parties are obeying the rules of common discourse (for examples, see Geoffrey Leech’s Politeness Maxims here and the fabulous Paul Grice here), then the common response to the insult is a comforting compliment.
- Sometimes we overstate our failings because self-pity is a sweet self-examination. Think of the analogy of stubbing your toe but then enjoying the chance to sit and hold your ankle and rock a bit while busy people hustle to work on either side of you. You provide yourself with a tenderness you rarely manage. You’ve insulted yourself, but you partly did it to carve out the time and space to sit and rock and lick the wounds. That’s what we call the “pity party,” and it can be sweet.
Those are some of the reasons we people who love praise insult ourselves. Can you extend or edit the list? Anyone out there also love In Treatment?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.