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‘The Examined Life’

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.

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  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    Rosebud; “Citizen Cane”.
    Soon many more thousands of soldiers will be returning, many are carrying some heavy baggage.
    The Congress wants to let in millions of people that are fleeing from places that are factories of despair. I just hope that there are enough psychoanalysts to handle all of the problems that will be manifesting as a result of hidden psychological damage.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    We tell ourselves narratives, but do we tell ourselves truths? Might need some philosophers on the program to really get at the heart of the matter.

    “Deception, flattering, lying, deluding, talking behind the back, putting up a false front, living in borrowed splendor, wearing a mask, hiding behind convention, playing a role for others and for oneself — in short, a continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity — is so much the rule and the law among men that there is almost nothing which is less comprehensible than how an honest and pure drive for truth could have arisen among them. They are deeply immersed in illusions and in dream images; their eyes merely glide over the surface of things and see ‘forms.’” – Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)

    • Wm_James_from_Missouri

      Mr. Expanded_Consciousnes,
      That was quite good.
      Every time I hear or see Nietzsche’s name, I am reminded of the philosopher “God”, who said, “Nietzsche is dead”.

      • Expanded_Consciousness

        Nietzsche’s thought lives on. So does the words of the Bible, unfortunately. Science hasn’t killed God, yet (unfortunately).

        • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

          It is not possible to kill The Process of Becoming.

          Indeed, the Process of Science is manifestly the Process of Becoming Aware.

        • http://www.findingourdream.blogspot.com Hal Horvath

          I’ve always been puzzled by anyone needing to place “god” and “science” in opposition.  It’s kind of like putting a level and a mountain in opposition, or a monkey and an ocean.  Of course, we all have similarities and differences, but the most alike among us it seems to me are the fundamentalists and the atheists.  Isn’t it curious how people try to make “god” busy micromanaging lives or automobiles, etc., or make science into a deity or religion, etc.  Let me listen to Chopin without measuring his scales, and measure bolts, molecules, etc., instead.

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            Let the unknown be the unknown, until it becomes known, and not filled in with religion’s fairy tales.

      • J__o__h__n

        Benny Hill said it.  

  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    (Mr. Expanded_Consciousness. Rather than run on with narrowing columns, I posted a new response, to your comment about science and God here. )


    We are getting way off point here but I will finish with the logician and mathematician, Kurt Gödel. He demonstrated that there are statements that would never be proven and that there are truths that could never be known, by man or machine. You must ask yourself, ‘ If this is so, then in what Universe do these truths exist?”. Further, if this is so, then what possible purpose would such truths serve? Who or what would they serve? You see, Mr. E_C, the very science you choose to use as your platform from which you launch your argument, is based on mathematics! Science can’t be true if mathematics is false ! However, it may be shown someday that mathematics is false, in some sense; and that the laws of quantum mechanics rule. If you know anything about the Christian religion and the story of the birth of Christ, as revealed by documents found long after the Canonical Bible was formed, you would also know that these documents were written BEFORE many of the Canonical documents that were used to put the Bible together, as one book, of writings. The birth of Christ was a quantum mechanical event, that is well beyond the current understanding of the human species. The story reveals that Christ was born of light! I will not continue now, because I know that you and others cannot accept this. Be clear, I do not reject science! But I will say, that, so much of what so many believe to be “science” is nothing more than, reasoning based on simplistic mathematics and a kind of tunnel vision about the complexity of the Universe. The very brains we use to observe the Universe are limited. The number of connections and the configurations of our neuronal circuitry limits our comprehension ability. However, Gödel PROVED that even a computer the size of the know Universe, whose components included EVERY PARTICLE of that Universe, would still be insufficient to reveal ALL TRUTHS.

    Truth Mr. E_C, may well be more than you assume.


    • Expanded_Consciousness

      I do not believe that current science (only a few hundred years old) knows all. Yet, I do not think that every unknown and every limit to knowledge (if there is such a thing), can be usurped by religion and that believers can then claim that they and everything from Sunday school was right all along. Sorry, claiming that knowledge is a difficult game does not prove your religion was right all along. The unknown is just the unknown, and remains unknown until it is known. It is not God, or proof of God’s existence. Your religion doesn’t amount to much if all it is is a synonym for the unknown. That would make religion a blank void. Which is what it is, actually.

      • Wm_James_from_Missouri

        Do you really know what science and math entail ?

        If you can show me how I, that live in this or any Universe, could write out the “set of all sets”, and not be a member of that set, you might have something new to tell me !


        Of course if you could demonstrate how I might Hypercompute in “P-Space, then you might have something new to tell me !




        For your FYI

        “Kurt Gödel used to walk every day with his friend Albert Einstein at the Institute of …”.http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2010-03-25/news/27608052_1_atom-challenge-world

        Lots of good thought problems here ! Great subject ! Very deep !

        P versus NP ( Polynomial versus Non-deterministic polynomial)


        From the FreeDictionary


      • geraldfnord

        There are many hypochondriackal patients who leap from their doctors’ not being able to cure them (utterly and immediately and without effort on their own part) straight into the arms of that nice guy with the leeches.

        Truly, nothing starts my day like someone’s arguing, ‘X is impossible for all describable entities, proving that there is an indescribable entity for which X were possible.’ My only comfort is that I have two powers these interlocutors will never attain: that of knowing that I can be wrong, and (even more important, being a prerequisite to the first) the ability to prefer known ignorance to basis-challenged ‘knowledge’.

        (Apologies to the leech-wielders, who can at least do some post-reättachment oedema sufferers some good.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

    I have examined my life and found it baffling.

  • Markus6

    Intriguing description on Amazon of his work “… uncovering hidden feelings behind our most baffling behaviors”. Though I suppose all therapists do this. 

    I’ll listen today, but would be nice if it really did cover the above and dealt with people who are not so “abnormal” that they’re relevant to most of us. I find psychoanalysis fascinating but so many books focus on the extremes of behavior that they’re interesting but not very useful. I don’t blame the therapists as this is who’s coming to see them. Though I do fault them when they draw broad conclusions from what is a very skewed sample of people. 

    But looking forward to this and if he’s any good, I’ll buy the book.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Many suffer from dwelling on the past. Many from dwelling on what might be, but usually never manifests. So few dwell in the present.

    Do not dwell on the past, but learn not to repeat past mistakes. Prepare for the future but only probable futures, because ‘luck’ is often the resilt of preparation to take advantage of opportunity that presents itself ( as opposed to dumb luck) or prevent disaster. Do not dwell on the infinite possibilities of the future for you will never see them and in the process, you will never live In the present and the present will forever pass you by.

    The past appears nearly infinite, our futures may be finite. Regardless, the one thing that is, is now. Your future now is what you make of it, so make it a good one.

    • John Cedar

       Yikes!…first you inspire me not to dwell on the possibilities of the future, perhaps inspiring me to be more decisive, but then close by putting all that pressure on me to make the best of the future now.


    The issue with self examination is we can only do it using our own experiences and knowledge base. Does that really help us, or are our conclusions biased from the beginning?

    • brettearle

      It is possible to examine other people’s views, and to examine other people’s reactions to problems and passions–that are similar to one’s own…and to carefully compare.

      • NTSVA

        I believe it since we have then added an experience that is not our own. Don’t you think outside views help us to see our own experiences and opinions with a different lens?

        • brettearle


          but it is an ENORMOUS challenge to find a selected sample of men and women who are not biased, themselves.

          What’s more, the more one learns, the more one experiences, and the more one understands–whereby one’s wisdom hopefully expands and gains more flexibility and more possibility–the more difficult it is to find others who grew through, and into, such expanded awareness.

          Being Heraclitus, Stephen Hawking, Camus, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, or Saul Bellow–I suspect–can be terribly lonely.

          • NTSVA

            But maybe the error is in ‘selecting’ the sample? I would hope that I would see someone else’s bias even if I am not introspectively honest enough to see my own. And, if I see someone else’s, maybe that may be enough to make me stop and question my own?

            And you are so right, to live in the stratosphere of those you mentioned would seem an opportunity for isolation and loneliness. But there in lies the assumption that I believe is wrong, the assumption that we must seek out those “like” us in order to create an environment for honesty.

          • brettearle

            You are absolutely correct that you must be careful about your Sample.

            [Indeed, with that comment of yours, I am already forming a positive bias on your behalf, to consider screening you for further discussion about this very topic.]

            Liberals see me as Liberal until I offer them a view that does not fit the rank-and-file of expectations.

            Conservatives think I’m converting to their side–until they hear the same `ole tired Left Wing advocacy coming from me, that makes them, suddenly, disappointed once more.

            I personally like President Obama more than any other President–since I’ve been old enough to form opinions about figureheads.

            If I say that it was remarkably imbecilic, of the President, to say that Trayvon Martin might look like his son–if he had one–much less make any public comments on the Zimmerman case at all, I am suspected of being a racist.

            Is is THESE kinds of dysfunctional biases that help us, at least, to get by the First Screening Process.

            BELIEVE IT OR NOT, this eliminates an awful lot of people–and that includes over 25 years ago, when Media and Politics and the Economy and the Church scandal and 9/11 weren’t polarizing everything, even
            worse than they are polarizing everything now.

  • geraldfnord

    The unexamined life is not worth living; the over-examined life is not lived.

    That aside, the extract makes me guess that Dr Grosz would agree with Winnicott in many regards…am I correct in this surmise, and where would the doctor believe Winnicott to falter in accuracy or in usefullness?

  • Markus6

    Any way we can get to the subject of the book, rather than why he became a therapist or what makes a good one. These are awfully generic questions. Ok, it’s still early in the program.

  • Emily4HL

    Any suggestions for helping convince people that are struggling to try therapy? or try medication? I’ve met several people who are clearly struggling, often admit they are struggling, but refuse to get help.

    • tbphkm33

      I meet people like that also, but I think a first step is that the person must come to terms with things themselves, must want help.  I have a friend who dated an alcoholic, but she got him to go to AA.  Problem was, he was doing it for her and not for himself.  From what I hear, sometime after they stopped seeing each other, he got help and is today sober.  Seems that the second time he did it for himself, not for a relationship or for her. 

    • brettearle

      Accurate Statistics–which might be hard to ascertain– might reveal that some actually GET WORSE after therapy, medication, or a combination of both.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pat.singleton Patrick Singleton

    My first thought when I heard about this guest and his book was, “I hope none of my former therapists writes about me.” What effect does the writer feel his book will have on his relationships with patients?

    • sickofthechit

       He should have been concerned about the patients first.  I see the excerpt from the book shown here has his “permission” and the “permission” of the publisher.  There is no indication he has the patients “permission” to share their stories.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1087247826 Marlow Shami

    Check out this marvelously funny and poignant song about therapy on youtube called “Everything Reminds me of my Therapist”  


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1087247826 Marlow Shami

    This song has me laughing out loud!

  • Roberto1194

    I’ve come to the conclusion that most therapists and patients are far too self oriented and carry typical shadows and biases. and that Family Relationship Systems thinking (Best via Bowen Theory) is far more effective and beneficial in developing a broader, more comprehensive and compassionate understanding of self and others, and therefore better at solving problems that affect both self and others.
    PS. Individual Therapy for Children is NOT at all a good idea.

  • Roberto1194

    Also: As in all things- Comprehensive and beneficial understanding and change require sincere commitment over time with an open mind and an open heart and much clear thinking and ‘Practice’, leading to a willingness to release oneself from afflicting emotionally driven thought, speech, and action. Only this can allow the realization of true well-being, compassion, confidence, and kindness for self and others.
    (It’s great to know that it is NOT all about you!!!
    -and yet it IS available to you.)
    The insight and effort for obtaining these things are best sought through time-tested Wisdom based philosophy, and designed for the benefit of both the Individual, Family, Community, and beyond.A truly exceptional Therapy can help find this way, but it’s rare and it really depends on the individual seeking it out in diverse ways.Typical Psycho-therapy practice is far too often an incomplete, easily confused, and emotionally manipulated process. Mostly it dwells upon memories (-proved to be almost always distorted);  And a clinical mindset that is limited in depth, format, and time, and then often defaults to not well understood -or even particularly effective- drugs.It is satisfied by merely restoring a ‘client’ to economic and social functionality, but is that a truthful and lasting resolution?Is that enough? Or is it just enough to keep one coming back to keep talking, or until the next ‘crisis’ leads one -and/or others around you- back to the therapist.(?) 

  • HonestDebate1

    I tried to listen, I really did.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      What a whispery guy. Did he realize he was on air and not whispering to someone laying on his couch? Talk about seduction. Early psychoanalysts were true radical thinkers and manly men (Freud, Jung, Bettelheim, you name it), and not whispery passive-aggressives like this guy.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      The Un-Examined Hour. What a load of banal insights.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    A psychoanalyst that is into presentism. What a joke. 

  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    They have issues. :)

    • Mainstone

      Very funny. By the way, I like the book excerpts too – clear, kind, and thought-provoking. 

  • brettearle

     Because people are afraid to confront themselves.

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