As I reflected on the movie, my mind kept returning to the therapy process. There were many themes in the movie that I experience in the therapy room. Initially I thought my narcissism was kicking in. Is it a bit much to compare working with a patient to a blockbuster mind bender? Set aside the process of inception or extraction. Reflect more on the underlying process of entering someone's mind, circumnavigating their and your own defenses, and uncovering raw, genuine experiences. Read below and you be the judge.
Protection of the subconscious while in a dream state.
Therapy is the process of extracting. Extracting that memory or experience that lies deep within the psyche. An emotional experience that's difficult to reach. In the real world, we present differently than we do in the privacy of our home or a therapy room. We work to maintain our composure in public, counting down the minutes until you can finally be yourself. Our public and private experiences are different levels of consciousness. Therapy is the plot of Inception, gaining the combination to a personal safe.
Entering a mind, when it doesn't want to be entered. Resistance in therapy.
The process of entering deeper into the mind has a sinister feel in the movie. For therapy, the belief is the opposite: if emotions are brought from the unconscious to consciousness, experiences can finally be resolved, leading to psychological relief and growth. During the process of exploring the unconscious, the therapist will regularly encounter resistance in the form of the patient's defense mechanisms.
Projections are defense mechanisms.
To illustrate, let's use a therapy example. A patient conveys a story where a family member forgets the patient's birthday. The patient dismisses the forgetfulness as a non-issue because the family member has a busy life. The patient may then state birthdays are blown out or proportion, and actually express relief that their birthday was forgotten.
However, at a deeper level the patient may actually feel hurt and disappointed. At an even deeper level, the patient may feel dismissed and unloved by family. The deep, core issue here is feeling dismissed and unloved. However, the rationalization (e.g., busy family member) and intellectualization (e.g., debate of birthday value) of the situation serves as a defense against the realization of deeper, more profound emotions.
Kicks represent deeper levels of the mind.
Yusuf kept a sense of time by playing music in the van. In therapy, a sense of time may occur by recognizing the context of the memory (e.g. the physical location of the experience, who you were with, etc.). Just like the kicks, moving from one conscious state to another with a patient can be smooth or violently jarring. Just like a kick, therapy is finite, each session is limited to 50 minutes.
The deeper you venture, the more unpredictable the experience.
It's a very delicate process to venture deeper into someone's mind. Now add the time constraint of 50 minutes. It's not often talked about but there is a psychic pressure similar to the experience of deep sea diving or climbing a mountain. If you ascend from a sea depth or ascent a mountain too quickly, the body and mind sometimes have difficulty transitioning which can result in a sickness, shock, or even death. If you move quickly in and out of the unconscious, the patient can suffer a similar experience of sickness, shock, or even psychosis. It's imperative to bring a patient out of a deeper psychological state, and help them recover toward the end of the session. When the session is finished, that's the "kick" back to reality, the return to the world outside the therapy room.
Mal, Cobb, and countertransference.
This subplot is quintessential countertransference. Countertransference is the therapist's feelings that are stirred and brought to consciousness by the patient's experience. Entering Fischer's dream state stirs Cobb's own dream experience with his wife. A patient talking about abuse, loss, or fear can stir the same emotions in a therapist. Like Cobb, the therapist has to be vigilant and set aside their own experiences to work with the patient and their psyche. Countertransference is a powerful experience and should be addressed whether in a therapist's own therapy or in peer consultation.
Inception and how we create memories.
Memory and the patient's reality (whether accurate or not) is the foundation of therapy. I often encourage patients to journal or talk to their parents, if possible, about early childhood experiences that we process in therapy (I encourage you as well). Sometimes we are sure of a memory, then are surprised by how we are our own inception team. Each person decides how they are going to encode an experience into a memory, without the guarantee of accuracy.
For example, I was sure of a decades old memory until a year ago. I remember riding my bike home as a kid and seeing my mom pull out of the driveway with a child in the passenger seat writhing in pain. I remember feeling confused and wondering what happened. According to my memory bank, I found out the injury details hours later when everyone returned from the hospital.
I revisited this memory with my mom last year and her recollection floored me. She recalled sending me out to find this child as she feared something bad had happened. I found him injured in the woods, carried him from there into the house, and my mother took him to the hospital.
Two incredibly different stories for the same experience. Only one of us can be right. So if my mom and I both spin are totems, which spinner will continue to spin?
Take a moment and ask someone about one of your memories. Ask them their experience and compare notes. You might learn something about yourself.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!