THE MIND AS AN INSTRUMENT, by Art Smukler, author & psychiatrist

The mind can be played with the subtly and grace of a Stradivarius violin or as bullishly and aggressively as a bass drum.

Listening to the voices from our unconscious is not an easy task. It means taking time to evaluate rather than just react. Listening and letting feelings percolate is what good therapists do, and it’s exactly what you can do for yourself. Then, when you know what you feel, and maybe even where the feeling originates, you can choose to take action or not to take action.

But sometimes, even a psychiatrist has no clue where certain feelings are coming from. In Skin Dance, a mystery, Dr. Jake Robb is miserable after Jennifer, his wife, leaves. His brother Ken tries to help.

“Jake, I know you’re the shrink and I’m the attorney, but you have to admit that what’s really bothering you isn’t that crazy patient you were telling me about, but Jennifer. Hiding out isn’t going to bring her back. If you were treating yourself, you’d never advocate a treatment of social withdrawal and overdosing on carbs.”

Sighing, Jake felt himself sinking lower and lower into a puddle of depression. Mose Allison’s melancholy voice coming from the stereo wasn’t helping the situation.

“Listen Bro. We’re going out tonight. I’m not taking no for an answer.” Ken’s tone was insistent, undercurrents of worry lacing his words, like scotch through soda. “You won’t believe where we’re going…”

So Jake, like most of us, wasn’t clear on why he was feeling so down. He’d have to work hard to figure out the source of his depression. In Jake’s case, his life would depend on it. For us, our happiness and piece of mind may not be a life or death situation, but it will be an essential component to having a satisfying life.

So how do you do it?

Write down your dreams, fantasies, feelings, and the way you’re behaving in stressful situations. Then try to connect the patterns. Are the patterns a repetition from the past? Are you displacing feelings from your childhood and aiming them at a spouse or friend or child? It’s certainly not easy to discover what’s hidden in the unconscious, and a therapist might be necessary, but I assure you, learning to play a Stradivarius is a much better choice than battering your way through life. Except maybe if the bad guys are closing in…

Art Smukler MD is the author of Skin Dance, a mystery, Chasing Backwards, a psychological murder mystery, The Man with a Microphone in his Ear, and…drum roll… The popular blog, Inside the Mind of a Psychiatrist.


I’m sitting in my psychiatrist’s office and my mind’s a blank. Nothing in there.

After a minute of silence I say, “It’s costing a fortune to just sit here. I have nothing to say.”

The doctor nods, not in an unfriendly way, but also not very helpful.

“Maybe you’re just sitting there thinking about lunch; or napping with your eyes open?” I laugh, but it comes out a little too high-pitched. The sound of my wimpy laugh really annoys me. I blurt out. “What a great way to make a living. I do all the work and you get the money.”

“What work are you doing?” The doctor asks with a wry smile.

“What work? Well maybe I’m not doing anything, but you’re still getting paid.” Now the doctor thinks he’s a real comedian. Next he’ll be auditioning to MC the Oscars.

“You’re pretty angry this morning. What’s going on?”

“I don’t like you today. There’s an arrogance, a kind of power you have over me. Who do you think you are?”

Silence. A quizzical expression is on the doctor’s face.

I glance out the window at the sky. I don’t feel like looking at the son-of-a-bitch.

Finally I say, “You know my insurance pays almost nothing for this. It all comes out of my own pocket. Obamacare, Oshmamacare, certainly isn’t helping me!”

The doctor nods, like he agrees.

“Screw them! The idiots in Washington. I’m furious!”

The doctor nods again.

“Shit!” I shake my head and close my eyes.


“I know why I’m so angry…”


“I spoke to my father last night. He’s such an insensitive jerk! I told him how boring my job was, how I need to find something more fulfilling. He said, ‘I worked at the same job for thirty years.’ I ended the conversation and watched the Lakers. They even lost! Does he want me to be just as miserable as he is?”

“Maybe he didn’t understand how unhappy you are?”

“He was NEVER understanding. Ever! My mother says the same thing. It’s been going on my whole life.”

This is an example of how psychotherapy and the concept of transference works. The patient transfers angry feelings from a parent (or another important person, usually from the past) to the psychiatrist. Often it’s more complicated. The feelings aren’t so much on the surface, but hidden in the unconscious part off the mind. Sometimes a patient can be angry for weeks or months at his doctor, but eventually the original source of the anger is clarified. As the old wound is being relived in the transference, it can be examined in the safety of the psychiatrist’s office. Once it’s out there, and not being repressed, the issue can be dealt with in a more productive manner.

Any similar experiences or ideas about the unconscious or transference?

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