One of my favorite scenes of all cinema is a scene from “Good Will Hunting.”

Well, two of them, really.

The scene less relevant to what I want to write about today, but one of my favorites, is the scene where Will, having out-intellectualized the Harvard prick with the ridiculous ponytail in the bar, smugly asks, “Do you like apples? Well, I got her number…how do you like THEM apples?”

(Those who know me, for some reason, are completely unsurprised that I love that scene.)

But the other scene that I, and everybody else who is either in therapy or does therapy for a living, finds enormously powerful, is the scene where Shawn, the psychotherapist played by Robin Williams, takes Will’s clinical file, which details his history of abuse, and tells Will, matter-of-factly, “See this, all this shit? It’s not your fault.”

“Don’t fuck with me, Shawn,” Will famously replies. “Not you.”

“It’s not your fault,” Shawn repeats, until Will finally allows himself to give into tears.

It’s a scene that attempts to sum up the turning point where abuse survivors surrender the conviction that many of us don’t remember NOT having– the feeling that abusers don’t abuse kids for no reason, that it must somehow be our fault.

It’s a dramatization of that turning pont, to be sure.

Having worked with literally hundreds of abuse survivors, I can tell you that I’ve never had the magic “Good Will Hunting” moment happen so suddenly and so emphatically– so cinematically, if you will.

The closest I’ve come to it was once, while working with a patient who was hell-bent on blaming and shaming herself for her abuse history, finally, in a moment of exasperation, challenging her to align her perception of herself as “dirty” with any kind of external evidence.

She kind of sputtered, and went silent for a moment, at which point I exclaimed, “Aww, you got NOTHIN’! You got emotional reasoning, that’s all you got! Psssht.”

(For those who aren’t immersed in cognitive behavioral therapy every day, “emotional reasoning” is what we call it when we assume something is true just because it feels true, as opposed to having any kind of evidence to back up that assumption. It’s the kind of faulty reasoning a ten-year-old might be expected to use, which makes it hilarious and tragic that most adults use it to make most of our decisions.)

That patient did experience my “You got nothin’ but emotional reasoning!” intervention as a turning point, where she could no longer blame herself for abuse that was objectively out of her control (and, for some reason, she didn’t fire me as her therapist)– but even that moment came after literally years of laying groundwork.

The fact is, powerful, memorable, dramatic, flash-bulb moments in therapy are pretty rare.

The idea of the one-and-done therapeutic breakthrough is basically a myth, in my experience.

Why is it important for you to know this?

Because the number one reason people quit therapy is because they’re not getting the results they expected, at least in the way they expected them.

Very often, people get into therapy with this idea that they’re simply misunderstanding something, or they’ve repressed something into their unconscious, and once they talk, talk, talk enough, that misperception will correct itself, or that unconscious gunk will bubble up to the surface, and then they’ll be “done.”

It’s actually one of the less fortunate legacies of Freud (popularized by many movies and TV shows), this idea that there will be an “ah-ha!” moment, where everything will change in an instant.

It’s such a destructive myth, for multiple reasons.

It’s destructive not only because people sometimes quit therapy when their “Good Will Hunting” moment fails to materialize, but the myth of the “ah-ha!” moment is also harmful because it can also keep people in ineffective therapy for years, talking, talking, talking, and in some cases paying thousands of dollars over the course of years, waiting patiently for that moment to arrive.

Most of us know at least someone who has been in “therapy” for years, but who doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

My hypothesis is that at least a few of these poor souls are waiting for their therapist to soulfully tell them, “It’s not your fault,” at which point all maladaptive patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving will suddenly disappear.

Trust me, if that “Good Will Hunting” moment happened on any kind of regular basis, we psychotherapists would figure out how to reliably make it happen and market the hell out of it.

We’d bottle it and sell it like the latest and greatest smartphone.

The fact that there are still a hundred different types of psychotherapy practiced, each with a hundred different theoretical orientations, each orientation promising a very different path to that moment, suggests that we’re nowhere close to knowing how to make that moment happen with any kind of consistency.

(No matter WHAT the EFT and EMDR people might tell ya.)

The scene with Shawn and Will is powerful because it’s a cinematic distillation of a process that actually takes a long time to create– and there’s actually no magic to creating it.

The bottom line is that most people come to therapy because they don’t like the way they’re thinking, feeling, or behaving; and the reason they tend to be thinking, feeling, and behaving in not-so-great ways is usually because, for one reason or another, they’ve learned ineffective ways of dealing with their feelings and come to believe negative things about themselves somewhere along the way.

The only real way to fix that is to develop a new skillset for dealing with feelings and a new set of beliefs that helps instead of hinders…and the only way that we develop new skills and beliefs is to practice, practice, practice.

Yeah, I know.

Much less glamorous than the “Good Will Hunting” moment.

As much as I like that scene in “Good Will Hunting” for all its dramatic and symbolic charge, I also dislike it, for a very specific reason– it frames the role of therapist as kind of a magician.

Once he speaks those magic words– “It’s not your fault”– then the spell of trauma is broken, the tears flow freely, and suddenly we’re off to see about a girl. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

(Well, sometimes not metaphorically speaking. But you get my drift.)

I don’t think it’s particularly useful to think of therapists as magicians.

There aren’t, actually, magic words. Even therapists who use hypnotic techniques (don’t think of a duck) aren’t using “magic words,” really– they’re employing a specific way of implicit teaching that has more to do with how the brain processes information, not the actual language.

If we think of therapists as magicians, that means we also have to believe in magic to heal– and there’s nothing about this project of healing that’s magic.

Rather, it’s science– a process of learning how to make observations, form hypotheses, test hypotheses, and adjust our behavior accordingly.

Lather, rinse, repeat– no sleight of hand needed.

Instead of thinking of therapists as magicians, who might someday say the magic words that will allow the “Good Will Hunting” moment to materialize, I think it’s more useful to think of therapists as coaches, or maybe cornermen in a boxing match.

All a coach is, is somebody who has expertise in a particular skill, and who, standing in the corner or on the sidelines as you’re out there on the field or in the ring, has some perspective that you probably don’t, being so close to the action and all. ‘

In order for a coach to be useful to his athlete, he has to use the very small amount of time between rounds or plays to communicate some helpful insights or advice– but then the player needs to take that insight or advice back out into the competition.

All of this, of course, after hours and hours and hours in the gym, making mistakes, making adjustments, learning new skills, shedding old habits of exercise and nutrition.

Running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and punching meat and what not.

(I’m pretty sure my former mentor, who has authored multiple books, has never used the phrase “punching meat” in print.)

Yup, Will and Shawn embracing is an incredibly powerful moment on the screen. I still tear up every time I see it.

But, if you want to really get a feel for how powerful change happens in therapy? Go watch “Rocky.”

Actually, go watch “Rocky” and “Rocky II,” back to back.

Then go punch some meat. Metaphorically, that is.

One thought on “Good Will Hunting and Punching Meat.

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