Outreach is an important topic these days in psychoanalysis. As I have explored in a previous post, there is a growing sense that psychoanalysts must reach out beyond the privacy of their offices and professional journals if their profession is to survive.
But beyond self-preservation, there is a deeper question that psychoanalysts must ask: Is the world actually interested in what we have to say? In other words, do psychoanalysts have something of value that people need and want to hear?
On June 9, 2014, I had the privilege of speaking at Interesting Talks-London, the largest non-technical meetup.com group in the world. I had planned to visit London for the launch for my book, Wisdom from the Couch. In researching possible venues to promote my book, I looked into Freud’s Bar, an outreach program to the public sponsored by local psychaoanlytic societies. This research took me to meetup.com where I stumbled upon organizer Matt Kendall and his wildly successful group.
Interesting Talks-London has over 8,000 registered members. Matt has a simple formula with an incredible yet proven track-record of success. He offers one or two events each week, always in Central London and usually in a church basement that seats 70 people. At each event he has an invited speaker come and give a two-hour interactive talk about a topic their choice. The topics include hypnosis, business, persuasion, negotiation skills, self-development, dating, careerbuilding, and even magic. After the talk there is chance to chat and network with all the attendees in a pub across the street. He charges a mere $10 for admission and the events frequently sell out. Each talk is videotaped in high definition for use on his website. Even before meeting him, I was convinced that Matt Kendall was an organizing genius.
I was delighted that Matt accepted my offer to give a talk. I was none too keen on the fact that he expected me to organize small-group discussions during the two-hour lecture. I hate small-group discussions. I did not tell him this, of course, because I was eager to do all I could to make this a success. After all, I was a no-name psychologist from Los Angeles, speaking about a topic that I thought might be somewhat intimidating or off-putting to the average Joe and Jane. I was worried that nobody would show up. This anxiety was connected to a deeper fear that the book I had just published would fall flat. Would anyone really be interested in what I had to say?
Matt and I worked together to come up with a compelling title and description for my talk. We called it “Understanding the Mysteries of the Unconscious” and I gave myself a tall order: I promised (in writing) to help people understand why they do the counter-productive things they do and why they don’t do the productive things they want to do. To my great surprise, the talk sold-out with 20 people on the waiting list.
Even though Matt’s events often are well-subscribed, I was stunned. So, when I began my talk, I asked everyone, “Why did you come?” And they gave the same basic response: “The topic seemed so interesting. I don’t know anything about the unconscious. I wanted to know more about why I sabotage myself.” I began to feel that I might find a positive answer to my fundamental question.
I began my talk by sharing my motivation for writing Wisdom from the Couch and then read a few of the first pages. I talked a bit about the nature of the unconscious and what makes psychoanalysis different from other therapyapproaches. Then I gave them the first (dreaded) exercise. I said, “Now I want you to break up into small groups, just turn around right where you’re seated, and brainstorm some ideas about how we even know that the unconscious exists. Think of the unconscious like gravity or wind. We can deduce that the gravity and wind exist because of their effect on things. What evidence is there of the unconscious in everyday life? (pause) Go!”
The room erupted in a burst of electric energy as 70 people turned to one another to engage in conversation. I got goose bumps. That was the moment when I realized that psychoanalysis might actually offer something that people want and need in their lives.
At the pub afterwards, I chatted with some of the attendees and discovered that London is a very lonely place. Matt’s meetup.com group has been successful because these folks long for contact with like-minded people and do, in fact, want to develop and grow themselves. This revelation was both poignant and refreshing.
Many cities in the world must be like London. I know that here in America, people are becoming more and more dissatisfied with the limitations of the quick fix models that flood the popular psychology market. In last week’s Time Magazine, Kristin van Ogtrop wrote a piece called “Self Helpless,” offering a funny but scathing critique of the self-help industry that preys upon the weaknesses of overachievers. She suggested that the net result is that people feel badly about themselves but are given no real help to do anything about it. With this in mind, I think it is worthwhile to ask ourselves, is there a more useful kind of self-help book, blog, or talk? Something that gets beneath the surface of things.
Now, I’m not saying that psychoanalysis is the answer. But I was encouraged in London that there might be a need and a hunger for the wisdom that psychoanalysts have to offer. For me, this wisdom includesunderstanding the value of humble self-examination and critique; our unconscious resistance to change; the destructive role of greed, jealousy, and envy; the need to accept our human limitations while developing the courage to do what we can do; the benefit of changing our orientation to balance self-interest with the common good; the value of slow growth over time; and above all, the centrality of love. If psychoanalysts can speak and write about such things in an accessible, user-friendly way, it turns out that people will come.