• U.S.

The Shadow Knows

5 minute read
Joel Stein

Therapy has always seemed like a waste of time to me because you’re only talking about yourself to one person. Besides, it’s obnoxious to complain about all the psychological damage my parents caused me when I’m well aware that I caused them far more.

But when I heard that a ton of successful writers, actors and producers in Los Angeles were getting career help from therapist Barry Michels and his mentor, psychiatrist Phil Stutz, I knew I had to see them. It wasn’t that I needed advice. It’s just that in L.A.–as with restaurants, hiking trails and preschools–if you don’t go to the same places as the network executives, those first 45 minutes of prepitch chat can ruin your 15-minute pitch.

Michels hasn’t taken on new patients for nearly three years, Stutz for much longer. But they have written a new book, The Tools, in which they explain that they reject psychotherapy’s search for childhood causes of your problems and instead just fix them. There’s plenty of good advice in The Tools, but the book was not going to help me prepitch name-drop, so I persuaded Phil to give me a session if I wrote about it.

I walked into Phil’s home office in his Santa Monica apartment and told him all the issues I could think of, none of which interested him. Not my porn use, my flirting to feed my ego, my panic over public speaking, my inability to persuade my wife to have a second child. The reason I bombed at a recent speech, he explained, was that “they brought a dead man up there to talk to them.” I was hoping for more of a Picture-the-audience-naked kind of insight.

“Dead man” seemed a little harsh, I told him, for a guy who loves his wife, son, parents, career and house. But Phil said a lot of things I’d secretly been worrying about, like that my seeming contentment with my life wasn’t Zen-like acceptance but fear, and that the recent disappearance of my fear of death was less enlightenment than mild depression. “You’re confusing comfort with happiness,” he said. “I view it as a health danger. And it’s very unfair to the child.” Phil has invented the only therapy technique I’ve ever heard of in which you leave with bigger problems than you walked in with.

Phil told me to recall an incident when I got in trouble as a kid. I told him about the time my gouty high school guidance counselor had to come get me after I refused to leave class with the security guard who had been called to escort me to the principal’s office as punishment for a heated argument with my physics teacher. I was surprised Phil didn’t press me for a better story until I realized he mostly deals with writer nerds.

I was told to visualize my youthful rebel self, face the wall of Phil’s office and yell, “You are my evil shadow!” Most clients have to wrestle with their inferior shadow, who gives them insecurities that make them act out. I, however, don’t act out enough, so I had to get back in touch with my evil shadow. This lack of manliness made me feel insecure and need to deal with my inferior shadow. We were going to be there a lot longer than 50 minutes.

While I was facing the wall, I had to ask physics-hating me what he thinks of me now. The crazy part was that I did it. Even crazier, unless he did it very quietly, Phil didn’t laugh at me.

Since the session, I’ve started picturing the snottier teenage me whenever I felt my writing was retreading easy topics or I wasn’t making the effort to try to trick my wife into having sex with me. The only major downside of this tool is that I keep listening to Rush albums. But it helps if I embrace my fears by employing the “reversal of desire,” in which, instead of wanting to avoid things I’m afraid of, I desire the pain, yelling, “Bring it on!” followed by “I love pain!” and then “Pain sets me free!” It turns out people will say just about anything if their eyes are closed and they’re facing a wall. This tool also helped me with the having-sex-with-my-wife stuff.

I knew Phil’s advice was brilliant, not just because he outed my secret worries but also because he kept grabbing index cards and drawing stick figures to explain his ideas. Anyone who charges people huge fees and then hands them stick-figure drawings is living in a world without fear that I want to be part of.

After the session, Phil invited me to a seminar in which his clients, and their friends who couldn’t get appointments, meet at Barry’s house. As I ate crudits and hummus, I listened to two TV producers compare their salaries. Once the seminar started, we had to close our eyes and yell, “Bring on the pain!” as a group, which is vastly inferior to yelling at a wall since you are unlikely to encounter that wall at a restaurant.

At one point, Barry said, “Intelligence doesn’t come from thinking. It comes from doing.” So after the meeting, I headed back to the hummus and introduced myself to those two TV show runners. And one of them gave me his card. The tools helped me just like I wanted them to.

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