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Tuesday 5 April 2011

Disillusionment as a Goal for Therapy

How did the word “disillusionment” come to have such a negative connotation?

The literal meaning is to lose one’s illusions – to come into closer contact with and awareness of reality.  This is the function of much of psychotherapy:  to get over the happy myths that we tell ourselves to defend against uncomfortable but nonetheless essential realities.

Irvin Yalom titled one of his books “Love’s Executioner.”  On occasion, I have handed the book to a client and given them a quiz question.  “Why do you think he called it that?  Without looking at the book, who do you think might be Love’s Executioner?”

The answer, of course, is Yalom.  The therapist.  Romantic love is, as he and countless others have pointed out, a kind of madness.  A delusion.  The case that provides the book its name is one in which a client has fallen “madly” in love and it is in part the function of the therapy to bring her back to earth.

It’s not the therapist’s job to rain on every parade.  Most of us can remember the heady excitement of falling in love, and at least some of the time it has done us no harm.  In fact, sometimes the invigorating rush of a fresh projection can help people to make genuine – and positive – changes in their lives.

But every now and then we’re called to point out to someone that they are running toward a familiar cliff.  “It’s interesting:  You use the same words to describe this new man as you did with your abusive ex.  I wonder if they might be similar in other ways…”

A person I saw several years ago had seized with great interest upon a revenue scheme that he felt was sure to solve all of his problems.  I happened to know something about the area, but felt torn.  If he committed to the project it might pull him forward into other positive change.  But his ideas about the revenue opportunities were clearly mistaken.  On the other hand, people do sometimes “hit the jackpot” with questionable ideas – how was I to know?  And if I burst his bubble with some cautionary information, would I so damage our relationship that we would accomplish nothing else?

In the end, I shared my understanding of the field with him, along with my concerns.  He felt deflated, but returned shortly thereafter with a new plan that built on his past successes.  It was a bit less thrilling than the vision he had originally outlined, but wouldn’t bankrupt him if it failed and he wouldn’t waste a year of his life trying.  We discussed the issue as I strived not to push the decision I would make if I were in his shoes.  He arrived at the idea of starting out with the “surer thing” and collecting more information about the viability of his original idea.  As he learned more, the scheme crept into his discussion less and less.

I had, in effect, disillusioned him.  I think he would have preferred in the moment that I cheerlead for him, touting the likelihood of his success.  But I would have been flagging him onward, over a cliff.

Disillusionment is seldom fun.  But it is sometimes part of the job.


  1. Love’s Executioner.” is really wonderful book. Price is quite affordable.

  2. I think there exists a much more profound, destabilising form of disillusionment, one of frustrated idealism and thwarted hopes.
    This can lead, among other things, to a generalised misanthropy, anger, apathy, then self hate.

    I speak from personal experience when I say that when the idealist faces the nature of the world- the horrors at My Lai, the birth defects in Fallujah, the aurora shooting, his world is destroyed and so too is his hope.

    He reasons that he can act in some manner to alleviate the sickness inherent in humanity, maybe not at a macro level, but perhaps he can help individuals and himself and thus 'infect' others with his humanitarian ambition.

    So he tries, and he achieves a modicum of success, or at least believes he has. It is like applying a plaster to a person whose intestines are spilling out.

    Realising the futility of any action and the lack of meaning to any course of action he takes, realising that no action on his part can counteract in any sense whatsoever the immense and perpetual suffering he witnesses, he withdraws.

    He hates humanity for the callousness it exhibits, yet becomes blind to his own in abandoning his cause. At the root of this hate lies profound self disgust, for he has benefited and profited nonetheless from the horrors he shrinks from. He is a sanctimonious third party complicit in the crimes of humanity.

    Then, he grows a spine and realises this. He waits, cocooned in a sense of apathy, until he is drawn out by witnessing an act of supreme compassion, self sacrifice, or authenticity.

    Then the cycle repeats, as what inspired him again is subverted, perverted, sullied and destroyed, as all is that is good within him.

  3. During adolescence, many people have extreme or overidealized visions of the world - visions which are inevitably dashed when one comes into contact with broader reality. The disappointment can be profound. The ability of the media to present to one's eyes tragedy of every sort, happening anywhere on Earth, in full living colour, can lead the viewer to assume that this indeed IS the world in its entirety.

    I find that I frequently run into people who exhibit the sense that "nothing I do will matter," by which they really mean "nothing I do will ever completely change the world to suit my vision, making me a hero along the lines of people in the movies." Why bother volunteering at the local seniors' home, when this will not change the overall treatment of all seniors in the country or world? Why help the family down the block when this will not prevent other families from slipping into poverty?

    This stance seems to treat the people we CAN help as insignificant. "I want to change the world, not the family down the block." "I want to eradicate world hunger, not feed one measly kid." The sense of apathy comes from our narcissistic need to be significant, not from realizing that our powers are limited, that there is only so much that one person can accomplish. If one child in a suburb of Chennai is important, then our work on her behalf is not insignificant and nothing is sullied. We do not lose ourselves, only our grandiosity. And we feel a license to hate others for their inhumanity rather than using it as a reminder to cultivate our own compassionate action.

  4. Lovely response Dr Paterson. It can be a torturous process for people who have experienced major trauma and who either have had their disillusionment experiences early and deeply, or consistently over time. The habituated shadow grandiosity becomes the only source of power - a destructive path that becomes addictive. I loved your notion of helping the person feel some value in the ambit of their own life, moment to moment.