11/09/2010 11:40 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Psychotherapy for the President and the People

Reading Norman Lear's Huffington Post piece "Enough Already with 'the American People'" enabled me to harness some clarity for my own mixtures of disappointment with the display of disappointment by our leaders, specifically President Obama. To use a favorite and often misused buzzword, he was hardly acting "Presidential" as he ceremoniously tipped his hat to the angry mob of conservative victors. His litany of mea culpas, as Lear boldly points out, were offered to an American people who are neither united nor informed enough to advise a president on the wisdom of his policies.

Mr. Lear seconded my opinion that the role of our leaders is to lead, rather than to depend solely on opinion polls or anger that can be both raw and visceral in nature. Of course had he listened better, the President might have known how to deliver his policies in ways that might have made sense to more of the public. He could have shown more interest in being a better teacher and listener rather than leaving so many people in a state of fury, either of betrayal or of untamed disappointment which proved unforgiving as well.

Psychotherapy is usually thought of as being for crazy people -- a very subjective definition -- but no more crazy than those who would seduce us into magical thinking. The point of psychotherapy is to help us discover, admit and deal with the many shades of thought and feeling within us -- no matter how dark -- and to give us permission to be vulnerable; a notion that is not permissible in American culture. Yet, the more we can admit this, the less we will need to demonize the "other" to the extent we do at present.

Whether it's on the personal or political level, the more we are helped to recover from the sense of loss and betrayal and learn to accept imperfection as a part and parcel of us all, the less we will need to seek the magical promises of any president or political party or guru-du jour. However, as Mr. Lear pointed out, we are in need of a wider angle lens, and for me that means that once we have been hooked into the myth that we are to have a second coming for John and Bobby Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., we are headed for disappointment.

This is not the climate for generosity to the poor and the needy. It is rather the alternately frigid or heated taking of sides, oversimplifying things into the violence of warlike positions that demean, bully and negate anyone who might disagree.

When used as an educational tool, psychotherapy can in fact help reframe things and lessen the combative mood among adversaries. I frequently work with families whose form of relating is like some warped version of West Side Story without the music. Strict parents trained to swallow pop advice ignore the temperament of both child and parent resulting in a household filled with non-stop fighting. Parents in such a quandary tend to think that more rules and enforcement are the answer, even while they hate seeing themselves break down into hateful monsters in their own mirrors. Those who wanted discipline are now helpless and don't know why.

Through therapy, once they see that neutralizing tension allows things to calm down and by giving attention to those who need it, there can be the structure that leads to relationship. It is through give and take that things can change. This is especially true when they have a sense of dignity that comes from the power of self-discipline and the conviction that there is dignity in learning from their children as much as their children learning from them.

The big takeaway is that it is hard to recover when hate has taken over, but recovery is possible because it is the most common part of life. Therein lies the audacity of hope for America's current mood disorder.

In any such mood however, where participants are already enraged by a sense of betrayal and powerlessness not only over economics but over a sense of being on a nonstop media-fueled merry-go-round, this is no time for an opinion poll as to how to change things. Rather, listening to people and hearing their stories should influence us and our leaders in making decisions. However, it is only by allowing empathy for ourselves that we will feel we can economically or personally afford to stretch and have empathy for others who are not like us on the surface.

As humans, we often hate most in others that which we hate most in ourselves. And before we get too self-righteous, many of us turn our backs on, let's say, fellow liberals who don't agree on the subject of Israel or who might be religious when our own consciousness has no tolerance. I have known those who would have killed for peace or wanted to, and I may have been one of them. So that it's not only the facts with which we need help, but it is the emotional capacity to accept the diversity within ourselves so that we can begin to consider different ways of seeing things.

Those who can help us are those who are unafraid to lead and those who don't need to apologize when an enraptured or enraged public is so dramatically divided and living in varying states of irrationality.

Allow yourself to imagine this for a minute: The day after Adolph Hitler gets elected his opponent holds a press conference and addresses the German public with the statement, "I apologize for not having listened to you better. I will join with the Nazis and try harder."

Yes, of course, this is both grotesque and absurd, but if an American president is to hang his head in defeat of unpopularity rather than in a renewed dedication to learn, to teach and to lead, then we are truly in the biggest kind of trouble.