No Matter How You Feel, You Still Failed


Psychotherapists are often people who prefer to deal with feelings in their workings with people.  Feelings are important, and being empathically attuned to how patients are feeling is equally important.  We are taught to explore the patient’s feelings, imagine ourselves into their lived experience, and validate that experience.

This is often where we become disconnected from other professionals we collaborate with, such as educators.  Be it Pre-K or graduate school, educators are charged with working with students to learn and grow as a whole person.  It’s not that they aren’t concerned with feelings, they just can’t get hung up on them to the exclusion of everything else.

To be fair, psychotherapy has a long history of taking a broader view on the individual as well.  A famous psychoanalyst, Winnicott, once responded to a patient of his who was expressing feelings of hopelessness by saying something to the effect of “sometimes when I am sitting with you I feel hopeless too, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of continuing to work with you.”

But often in the past decade or two, feelings have held sway over everything.  Students don’t complete their assignments because they felt overwhelmed and still expect to pass the course.  Adults feel emotionally exhausted and miss work or are late to it.  Children feel angry at the injustice of chores and don’t do them but still want their allowance.

A criticism I often hear toward video games is that they encourage people to believe that they can always just reset, do over and have another shot.  But implicit in this criticism is the fact of something I feel video games actually do better than many of us sometimes:  They acknowledge the reality of failure.

When we play video games, we are failing 80% of the time.  Failing in the sense of Merriam Webster’s definitions including:

  • to not succeed : to end without success
  • to not do (something that you should do or are expected to do)
  • to fall short <failed in his duty>
  • to be or become absent or inadequate
  • to be unsuccessful

In video games the reality of this is driven home to us by a screenshot:







pac man


You can feel any way you’d like about it, angry, sad, annoyed, blase, frustrated with a touch of determination.  But no matter how you feel you still failed.

In life outside games, many of us have a hard time accepting the reality principle when it comes to failing at something.  We think we can talk, think, or feel our way out of failing to meet expectations.  My own predilection is that of a thinker, which is probably why I became a psychodynamic psychotherapist and educator.  I often waste a lot of time trying to think (or argue) myself into a new reality, which just boils down to not accepting the reality principle.  I notice the same with patients, colleagues and students, who miss deadlines, avoid work, come late to class and then try their best to think or feel their way out of it.

The first class each semester I tell my students, who are studying to be social workers and psychotherapists, that the most frequent complaint I get as an instructor is “I feel put on the spot by him.”  I assure them that this is a valid feeling and actually reflects the reality that I will put each and every one of them on the spot.  I will ask them tough questions, I will point out that they are coming late to class, I will disagree with ideas that seem erroneous to me.  Because if they think it is ok to be late or avoid thinking through a problem or confrontation in class, how in the world will they ever be a decent psychotherapist or social worker?  If the single mother you are working with wants to know how to apply for WIC, and you say you feel put on the spot by her question, that is a valid feeling AND you are useless to her.  If your therapist was 15 minutes late every week I hope you’d fire him.  And when you are conducting a family session and someone discloses abuse it is unprofessional to say “I’m feeling overwhelmed and sad right now, can you ask somebody else to go next?”

These sort of disconnects doesn’t happen overnight.  It comes from years of being enabled by well-intentioned parents and yes, mental health providers who focus on feelings to the exclusion of cognition and behavior, and worse, try to ensure that their children grow to adulthood feeling a constant sense of success.  When I hear self psychology-oriented folks talk it is almost always about mirroring and idealizing, and never about optimal frustration.  And I suspect that this is because we have become so focused on feelings and success that we are preventing people from experiencing optimal frustration at all.

The novelist John Hersey has said “Learning starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education.”  We commence to learn because reality has shown us that we lack knowledge or understanding.  That’s the good news.  We’ve woken up!  In this light I regard video games as one of the most consistent learning tools available to us.  When that fail happens and that screen goes up you can try to persuade it to cut you some slack, flatter or bully it, weep pleadingly for it to change to a win, but no matter how you feel, you still failed.  And because that reality is so starkly there, and because the XBox or PS3/4 doesn’t get engaged in your drama, that feeling will eventually dissipate and you will either try again, or give up.

Because that is in a lot of ways the conflict we’re trying to avoid isn’t it?  We want to avoid looking reality square in the face and taking responsibility for what comes next.  We want to keep the feelings flowing, the drama going, and we are willing to take entire groups of people and systems with us.  If we are lucky they put their feet down, but more often then not they want to avoid conflict too, and the problem just continues.

So here’s a confession:  I have failed at things.  I have ended a task without success.  I have not done things I was expected to do.  I have fallen short, been inadequate and been unsuccessful at stuff.  And nobody took away my birthday.  I’m still around doing other things, often iterations of the previous failures, quite successfully.

If you are a parent or educator please take a lesson from video games.  Start saying “Game Over” to those in your care sometimes.  If they can try again great.  If they want to read up on some strategy guides or videos to learn how to do it better, awesome.  But please stop capitulating to their desire to escape reality on the illusory lifeboats of emotional expression, rationalization or verbal arguments.  As Mrs. Smeal says in “Benny and Joon,” “when a boat runs ashore, the sea has spoken.”  Reality testing is probably the most important ego function you can help someone develop, please don’t avoid opportunities to do so.

Nobody likes to experience failure, I know it feels awful.  But to move through it to new realizations can be very liberating, and in time become more easily bearable.  And I truly believe that success without past failures feels pretty hollow.  When I play through a video game from start to finish without a fail I don’t feel like a winner.  I feel cheated.


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Reality Testing & The 7 Billion Rule

In this video, I discuss the ego function of reality testing, how it affects us, and ways to cope with distortions in it.  This is also another example of how I use technology, in particular YouTube as a transitional object for patients, allowing them to continue to remember our work together without compromising any of their personal health information.

This will be the last post for 2013, have a good end of the year and I’ll see you sometime in late January!


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If Freud Had Played Video Games

This post is dedicated to my supervisee, Alex Kamin, who inspired me to make the connections. I learn so much from my supervisees!

Last night I spent a great deal of time mining for diamonds.  They are fairly rare, and can only be mined if you have an iron pickaxe (or a diamond one).  This meant that I needed to mine iron ore first with a stone pickaxe, but I should start at the beginning.

Minecraft is a game which now rivals WoW in popularity.  It has been around in beta for a while, but now has been released to the general public.  The game takes place in what is known as a sandbox world.  What that means is that the game world can be effected permanently by the player.  Dig a hole and it stays dug, chop a tree down and it stays chopped, plant new ones and in time they grow.  As opposed to having a beginning, middle and end, Minecraft can be played for as long as you like.  You can play it in single-player mode or log on to a minecraft server and participate in a multiplayer world.

Starting with nothing but her or his bare hands, your character takes materials from the environment and fashions tools, houses, works of art out of these raw materials.  That is the crafting part.  Once you have fashioned the most basic pickaxe, out of wood, you start to do the mining part.  Which brings me back to diamonds.

Diamonds are very rare blocks in Minecraft, and are mostly found at the bottom layer of the world.  You have to tunnel through loads of dirt blocks, stone blocks, and gravel blocks.  Sometimes you tunnel straight into lava and get burned up.  Sometimes the ground beneath you turns out to be a giant chasm and you plummet.  Sometimes there is water that floods your tunnel, or monsters if you are looking in one of the world’s many caves.

A lot of time is spent underground, but a big part of the game is to bring the materials back up to the surface.  There you make your crafting table, house, and forge.  Days and nights pass.  At night the monsters from the caves come out and roam the surface, and you’d better be in your house with the doors shut!

This is a very brief synopsis of an amazing virtual world that is already being used in classrooms and by families to provide cooperative and fun learning. You can find one such example, The Massively Minecraft Network, here.

One group who could benefit from understanding and playing Minecraft is psychodynamic psychotherapists, especially psychoanalytically-oriented ones.

For decades, psychology textbooks have used the iceberg to explain Freud’s early topographical model of the mind.  It’s the one I grew up as a therapist with, and you probably did too.  One version is this one:

Photo found on

The topographical model introduces the concepts of the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious.  Freud was ultimately dissatisfied with this model, and moved on to his structural theoretical model of Id, Ego and Superego.  I wonder if he would have done so if he’d been able to play Minecraft.

Two of the deficits of the topographical model as pictured by an iceberg are its static nature and its failure to locate where and how psychotherapy works.  The second deficit derives from the first.  Psychodynamic therapy is as the name suggests, a moving process.  Now imagine playing the game I described above, and you have a dynamic model.  There is the conscious surface that changes over time, is constantly changing and growing, where things are visible.  There are the caverns and depths which are the unconscious.  And there is the preconscious twilight and night, when the monsters and creatures from the unconscious slip up to the surface and terrify us.

In terms of describing psychodynamic therapy, Minecraft makes that easy too.  I have often had a difficult time explaining to a patient what the unconscious is and why I think it is important.  But any gamer who has played Minecraft will understand the process of therapy and their work in it in the metaphors of mining.  During the week, our patients roam the surface of their psychosocial world.  Then one, two, or three times a week, they come into therapy and begin tunneling.  Week after week they mine dirt, stone, and occasionally strike a vein of insight.  Like iron ore, insight is a necessary but insufficient requirement for change.  Without smelting and crafting, iron ore can never become a tool we can use.  Likewise, without reflecting on our behaviors and changing them we can never improve our ego functions.

You can explain ego functioning via Minecraft as well, by discussing those above tools.  Tools in Minecraft include shovels, pickaxes, hatchets, swords, wool shears and hoes.  A hoe is excellent to use in gardening, whereas a sword will not function in the game that way.  You can chop down a tree with a pickaxe but it takes longer and wears down the pickaxe more quickly than if you were to use a hatchet.  Different ego functions do different things, and the ego defenses are only one subset of the ego functions.  Only one of the tools is explicitly made to be a weapon.

And if you lead with your ego defenses all the time you will be disappointed.  Take sheep for example.  If you kill a sheep with a sword you get one block of wool.  But if you shear it with the iron shears you get three wools, and the sheep lives to grow more wool.  By the way, if you craft a hoe you can grow wheat, which allows you to domesticate and breed sheep for even more wool.  Just so our ego functions, which provide a holistic and dynamic system that allows us to mediate the world and our wishes.

When you start mining you have a wooden pickaxe.  You mine stone so you can get a stone pickaxe.  You mine iron ore with the stone one.  Only iron pickaxes can mine diamonds.

Psychotherapy takes time and effort, lots of time and effort, if you are aiming for more than symptom reduction.  Patients begin with the raw tools they started out with, and build on each developmental gain.  Often our patients will feel very raw and discouraged, state that they despair of ever getting better, whatever better means to them.  When that happens we can remind them that therapy is minecraft.  It takes delving and work back on the surface in the real world outside the office.  It takes time and patience.  Sometimes they will feel consumed by feelings as hot as lava, or flooded by memories like water in a mineshaft.  Sometimes it will feel like they’ve lost everything they’ve been carrying and have to start over.  But with each set of tools they acquire they’ll find it easier to make their way in the world.

And sometimes they will find diamonds.


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