'The Examined Life'

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With Jane Clayson in for Tom Ashbrook.

The examined life, and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it, with psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz.

A psychoanalyst listens to a patient digging into her past at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute Treatment Center in New York, April 25, 1956. (Bob Wands/AP)
A psychoanalyst listens to a patient digging into her past at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute Treatment Center in New York, April 25, 1956. (Bob Wands/AP)

A woman who ignores her husband’s affair. A commitment-phobe. A man who bores loved ones on purpose. These are just some of the patients that psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz has treated in his 25 year career.

Now, he’s turned 50,000 hours of therapy into a slim book of parables, “The Examined Life.” Free of psychological jargon, but chock-full of scenes from the couch both heart-wrenching and funny, Grosz questions why we make the same bad decisions over and over again, and how we change.

This hour, On Point: deep into the mind with “The Examined Life.”


Stephen Grosz, practicing psychoanalyst and author of "The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves."

Book Excerpt

Selections reprinted from "The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves" by Stephen Grosz. Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Grosz. First American Edition 2013. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


For the past twenty-five years, I’ve worked as a psychoanalyst. I’ve treated patients in psychiatric hospitals, psychotherapy and forensic psychotherapy clinics, child and adolescent units, and private practice. I’ve seen children, adolescents and adults for consultation, referral and once-a-week psychotherapy. Most of my work, however, has been with adults in psycho-analysis – meeting with one person for fifty minutes, four or five times a week, over a number of years. I have spent more than 50,000 hours with patients. The substance of that work is the substance of this book.

What follows are tales drawn from day-to-day practice. These stories are true, but I’ve altered all identifying details in the interest of confidentiality.

At one time or another, most of us have felt trapped by things we find ourselves thinking or doing, caught by our own impulses or foolish choices; ensnared in some unhappiness or fear; imprisoned by our own history. We feel unable to go forward and yet we believe that there must be a way. ‘I want to change, but not if it means changing,’ a patient once said to me in complete innocence. Because my work is about helping people to change, this book is about change. And because change and loss are deeply connected – there cannot be change without loss – loss haunts this book.

The philosopher Simone Weil describes how two prisoners in adjoining cells learn, over a very long period of time, to talk to each other by tapping on the wall. ‘The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication,’ she writes. ‘Every separation is a link.’

This book is about that wall. It’s about our desire to talk, to understand and be understood. It’s also about listening to each other, not just the words but the gaps in between. What I’m describing here isn’t a magical process. It’s something that is a part of our everyday lives – we tap, we listen.

On the recovery of lost feelings

When she was six years old, Emma F. fell in love with her Year 2 teacher, Miss King. Miss King wore shiny hoop earrings and bright red nail polish. She and Emma shared a fascination with fossils. Once, Emma told Miss King that she was reading Charlotte’s Web all over again, and Miss King squeezed Emma’s hand – it was one of her favourite books too.

Before breakfast, on the last Saturday of the school year, Emma sat down at the kitchen table to make a thank-you card for Miss King. She drew a picture of an ammonite on the front, then opened the card and wrote: ‘Dear Miss King, you are the best teacher ever. Thank you for being my teacher. I will miss you next year. I love you more than anyone even Mummy. Love, Emma xxxxx’

When her father sat down, Emma showed him the card. ‘You can’t say that you love Miss King more than you love Mummy,’ he told her. ‘It’s not true.’ Emma took a pink rubber from her pencil case and began to erase the last sentence of her note. Her father stopped her. ‘I can still read what you wrote,’ he said. ‘You need to make a new card.’ And it was because of this – because he didn’t want any trace of her words to remain – that Emma knew she’d done something truly wrong.

Emma soon forgot about her card and the exchange with her father. But twenty-three years later, she remembered it, during a psychoanalytic session.

That morning, Emma had been late to meet her boyfriend, Mark, for coffee. Soon after she arrived, they got into an argument about Emma’s relationship with her friend Phoebe. Mark insisted it made no sense for Emma to keep seeing her friend; Phoebe always made her feel bad about herself.

‘He doesn’t understand why I like her,’ she told me later. ‘He says I’m always down after I see her.’

‘Are you?’ I asked.

‘Mark says I am.’

‘I’m not asking what Mark thinks you feel. I’m trying to figure out with you what you feel.’

‘He must be right – why would he lie?’

And it was then, when I didn’t immediately answer, that she remembered Miss King.

I’d been treating Emma for almost a year. She’d first come to see me because she’d become acutely depressed after beginning a PhD. She’d been prescribed antidepressants. Her psychiatrist asked me to see her after she told him that she was longing to talk to someone – ‘to break through the wall that keeps me from living’.

In our first sessions, Emma described her childhood as normal, happy. But slowly, over the following months, another story surfaced. Emma’s father was frequently away for work; her mother was insecure, unsure of herself. They quarrelled frequently. Just before Emma’s sister was born, Emma was sent to Scotland, to her grandmother’s, where she stayed for six or seven months. Without emotion Emma described returning to her parents and new baby sister, and how she missed her grandmother and cried for her at night, ‘My parents have this funny story about how, when I came home, I insisted on calling my mum “lady” – I wouldn’t call her “Mummy”.’

As best I could tell, Emma’s parents’ self-esteem, their emotional equilibrium, seemed dependent on Emma behaving, achieving.

Events in Emma’s early life that would ordinarily have caused a child anxiety – the first day of nursery, being forgotten outside school at pick-up time, getting lost in a department store – seemed not to have bothered her at all. My suspicion was that Emma feared being sent away again if she allowed herself to feel her own feelings. And while Emma’s skill in fitting in with her parents’ wishes did not prevent the development of her substantial intellectual abilities, it did stop her emotional development.

When Emma’s PhD supervisor asked her to choose between two different areas of research, to tell him which area she wished to pursue and why – Emma broke down. Having to choose a direction, she had no compass, she was lost.

In the quiet of the consulting room, Emma asked, ‘Why do you think I’m remembering Miss King’s card now?’

‘Why do you think?’

‘I don’t know. The conversation with my dad was like the conversation with Mark – both were telling me what I really feel, or should feel.’

Emma said that she didn’t understand how people knew what they really felt. ‘Most of the time, I don’t know what I feel. I figure out what I should feel and then just act that way.’

I started to point out to Emma that she did know where to look: her own memories, dreams, actions. Her memory of her father came to mind as we were talking about her argument with Mark – the two events felt similar to her. And in telling me that she was late again to meet Mark, she was signalling to us both her lack of enthusiasm for seeing him. But as I tried to explain my thoughts, Emma began to cry.

‘Miss King,’ she said, sobbing. ‘Miss King.’

Later Emma would tell me that she didn’t know why remembering that morning in the kitchen had made her so upset, so overemotional. ‘Mum hates self-pity,’ she said. I told her that I didn’t think it was self-pity; it was sadness. She seemed to be crying for the self she’d lost, grieving for the little girl who wasn’t allowed to have her feelings.

This program aired on July 15, 2013.


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