Can this Gwyneth Paltrow-approved therapist cure writer’s block? Inside our session
It’s hard to imagine Gwyneth Paltrow here, sitting in this waiting room. It’s sparse, with two high-back chairs that look like they belong at a dining table and old copies of the New Yorker. The art is mismatched: A poster from the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games hangs across from a pair of African wooden masks. The entire space is the size of a bathroom stall.
It’s quite possible, of course, that Paltrow has never set foot in this West L.A. office building, home to the practice of Barry Michels. The therapist — who has treated dozens of Hollywood creatives, including director Adam McKay and writer Bret Easton Ellis — won’t say if the actress is among his patients. But they know each other, and Paltrow is such a fan of his work that she’s invited him to participate in her first-ever wellness summit, In Goop Health.
The event on Saturday has been sold out for weeks, despite its hefty price tag: Tickets — limited to just 600 attendees and sold in packages named after crystals — began at $500 and went up to $1,500. The priciest ticket, Clear Quartz, includes access to the Goop Hall, where in a Southern California warehouse space being disclosed only to participants, various practitioners will offer I.V. drips, aura photography, nontoxic manicures and crystal therapy.
Paltrow will sit for lunch with those who paid for the most expensive passes, and they’ll also go home with a piece of Tumi luggage filled with goodies worth $500. But the majority of the day is devoted to a series of panels and keynote talks featuring the Goop CEO’s friends and trusted professionals, including workout guru Tracy Anderson, actress Cameron Diaz, fashion icon Tory Burch, psychotherapist Esther Perel and Michels.
In the lead-up to these 11 hours of eudaimonia, I have come to Michels’ office to experience a 50-minute consultation with the psychotherapist, who typically charges $520 per session. (He has a sliding scale for those who can’t afford that price.)
I’m no stranger to therapy — I am a writer living in Los Angeles, after all — and I was intrigued to learn what possible pearls of wisdom could be worth $10.40 per minute.
Which is how I’ve found myself in this waiting room, staring anxiously at the green button that had signaled my arrival to Michels. When he emerges from his office to retrieve me, his presence puts me at ease: He looks like a kind dad, with a slight gray goatee and an untucked button-up.
I’d done a bit of research about the 63-year-old, skimming through “The Tools” — the 2013 New York Times bestseller he wrote with his mentor, Phil Stutz — and an in-depth New Yorker profile from a few years back. The article mentioned that Michels was particularly adept at helping writers who are creatively blocked. Ding, ding, ding!
So as I take a seat on his leather couch, I tell Michels that though I’m here on assignment, I’m hopeful he might be able to really help me. I’ve long struggled with procrastination. It’s a challenge for me to hand in an article more than a couple of hours before deadline, and things have only gotten worse lately, as I attempt to write my first book.
“What’s the book about?” he asks, smiling warmly.
I tell him it’s about “The Bachelor” franchise — a behind-the-scenes take on the popular ABC reality show that will also attempt to unwrap why so many young feminists are transfixed by a program about traditional love and marriage. Michels admits he isn’t familiar with “The Bachelor” — “I don’t watch much TV,” he shrugs — but he’s intrigued.
“I guess I just sense that there’s some feeling behind this for you,” he says. “Is this issue, in particular, like, getting married — is that an issue for you, personally?”
I was planning on discussing procrastination, but, sure, let’s get to the heart of some of my deepest insecurities less than five minutes in. Awesome.
“Well,” I respond, “I’m 31, so I’m at the stage where a lot of my friends are getting married. And I think it’s sometimes hard to differentiate if I’m craving it so badly or if it’s societal pressure — Instagram and social media seeping into my mind — telling me that this is what I should be doing. I know what it’s like to have a partner, and I love that feeling. I know that’s true. But I also don’t know if I would be feeling the pressure as intensely if there weren’t all these messages.”
He nods his head and agrees that our culture bombards young singles with “pathologizing messages.” Then he asks if I’m familiar with “The Shadow,” a term coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. He explains that The Shadow is everything “you wish you weren’t” — the part of yourself you’re ashamed of. Subconsciously, he says, if we’re always judging our Shadow and finding it deficient, we’re never able to truly feel good about ourselves.
“Even if there are other parts of yourself you do feel good about?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “Because whatever you don’t feel good about is going to haunt you. … If you could feel — at least theoretically — so at one and accepting of your Shadow that you don’t care whether anyone sees it or not, then you could have that ultimate kind of confidence that some people seem to have.”
“But that’s the dream state,” I say, almost frustrated. “Who feels great about being single or overweight or whatever else it is that plagues you?”
“I have two reactions to what you just said — and particularly the way you said it,” he responds. “That ‘who’ feels great about this essentially implies there’s just no way that ‘I’ can feel good about it. And I understand. I’m not disagreeing with the vehemence and the desperation with which you said that. But I want you to understand, I treat, like, 10 people a day, and every single one of them feels that way about their particular Shadow. It seems literally impossible to them that they could ever feel good about their flaws. You may not believe this, but at least sort of try to keep an open mind about it — there actually is a way you can feel good about your Shadow.”
He instructs me to close my eyes and try to visualize myself — the part of me that is single and feels like she always will be “because of who she is or because of how impossible it is to find a soulmate.” For years, stretching back into adolescence, this person has been living inside of me, and that experience has not been a party because all I give this person is shame. He asks me to open my heart and feel empathy for this person.
Suddenly, I feel tears rolling down my cheeks.
“I just keep thinking that that person deserves that criticism,” I admit.
“That’s great,” he says. “Now tell me why. What is it about her that deserves that criticism?”
“Because all the flaws are fixable,” I tell him. “I’m too lazy or unmotivated to fix them, is the thing I keep coming back to.”
Perhaps in a show of solidarity, he starts sharing some of his own flaws with me, telling me about how he’d been an acne-ridden 15-year-old — something that haunted him for years after his skin cleared up. We all feel like there’s something wrong with us, he says, even the “rich, famous people” he treats on a daily basis. But condemning yourself is not the best way to work on those flaws, he explains — it’s to believe you’re lovable in spite of them.
Which is all well and good but, frankly, sounds to me like a pretty unattainable place to get to. Sensing my ambivalence, he says I might have to fake it until I make it. In other words, every time I have self-punitive thought, he suggests I stop and tell myself: “I’m sorry. I love you. You don’t have to be anything other than what you are.”
OK. So even if I were able to put aside my inner eye roll and practice this visualization — what the heck does rejecting my Shadow have to do with procrastination? Fortunately, Michels is eager to share the connection. Most writers, he says, don’t want to start writing because they know that the instant they write their first sentence, they’ll judge their writing. If you never start writing, your idea remains perfect — immune to judgment.
“So people who get good at accepting the parts of themselves they feel most ashamed of also get more creative,” he says.
In other words, if you can accept that you’re unmarried and eating frozen macaroni and cheese from Trader Joe’s every night, how bad could it possibly be to write a bad sentence?
While I understand his logic, the idea of giving myself love in situations where I’m aiming for self-improvement seems counterintuitive. I don’t know about you, but I often find the best way to kick my butt into gear is to be hard on myself. Want to jumpstart a diet? Just spend an hour looking at old photos of yourself when you were 30 pounds lighter. Then it’s kale all day, baby.
Michels explains that while that method of self-motivation might work in the short term, it’s a losing strategy in the long-term. Because once you attain your goal — or, in this example, hit a certain number on the scale — you stop hating yourself, and you lose motivation to maintain your progress. To his mind, discipline and self-hatred are unrelated. He defines discipline as “just doing what you say you’re going to do.” You try, and if you fail, you don’t beat yourself up — but you do try again the next day.
“Let’s try a different tool,” he says, asking me to close my eyes again. This one is called the Reversal of Desire, and it’s meant to teach me how to stop avoiding pain. He tells me to imagine I am sitting in front of my computer, deciding whether or not I should start working on an article. “Take all that pain that’s inside of you, and push it out in front of you, and give it the form of a big, dark cloud,” he instructs. That cloud? It’s apparently what’s holding me back from meeting all my deadlines.
“Now,” he continues, “from the most primitive, animalistic part of you, what I want you to do is silently, to yourself, scream, ‘Bring it on!’ And just move into the pain cloud. Now keep moving forward through the pain cloud and say to yourself, ‘I’m one with the pain. I’m completely dissolved into the pain.’ And now as you continue to move forward, imagine that the pain cloud just spits you out — you’re through it, and you’re flying, and you’re in a realm of light.”
This visualization doesn’t move me as much as the one involving the Shadow. But he promises that if I keep practicing it, I’ll soon uncover the secret to pain — that when you move toward it, it actually lessens.
“The Shadow loves it if you’re willing to go through pain,” he says. “If you’re willing to face pain, what it sees is, ‘She’s brave.’ If you’re putting yourself down constantly, it’s like you’re cutting your legs out from under you before a race. It takes all that you have to overcome pain.”
I glance at the clock on his desk and realize an hour has passed. (Or another $104, if I were an actual patient.) I thank him for offering me his guidance and tell him I’ll see him Saturday at the Goop event.
In the days since departing Michels’ office, I’ll admit that I have yet to practice either of the visualizations he’s taught me. But somehow, I’ve ended up writing 5,000 words I feel proud of this week, so maybe I’m already feeling better about my Shadow.
Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA
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