One therapist’s approach: %&$#! feelings
Brookline therapist Michael Bennett got sick of his patients expecting a cure for their problems. Lousy parents, painful breakups, their own flawed personalities — he’s heard it all.
“A lot of people see shrinks because someone in their life is an [expletive],” says Bennett. “They already know that, but they can’t accept it.”
So Bennett does something unorthodox: He curses in therapy sessions, trying to get patients to laugh at the cold, hard reality of their troubles.
“What made the conversation fun and interesting with a patient was saying, ‘It sounds like your mother’s just an [expletive],” says Bennett. “If she is, she is, and you’re not going to change her.”
Now, Bennett and his comedian daughter, Sarah Bennett, have F-bombed their way to the bestseller list.
“Profanity is a source of comfort, clarity, and strength,” they write in their book, “[Expletive] Feelings,” which reached No. 5 on the New York Times’ Relationships bestseller list last fall.
Readers get the same bracing verbal face-slaps as Bennett’s patients: Chapter titles include “[Expletive] Serenity” and “[Expletive] Communication.” Subtitles include “Accepting the Inescapably Annoying” and “Rising Up From an [Expletive] Takedown.”
The book’s bright yellow cover and black lettering, a sort of parody of smiley-faces, grabs bookstore browsers.
“It’s something people think is cute, and a unique take on therapy,” says Max Clark, of Trident Booksellers in the Back Bay, where the book recently occupied the No. 3 spot on the nonfiction bestseller shelf. “When people buy it, they’re more amused by it than intrigued from an intellectual standpoint.”
And yet, the book’s brash humor carries a serious message, an antidote to self-help clichés.
“So many self-help books make people feel worse, because they make people feel they should change something beyond their control,” says Michael, 71, a Harvard Medical School graduate. He and Sarah, 37, who’s written for New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, warn that life is hard, some problems can’t be solved, and people shouldn’t expect happiness or fairness. In fact, they wrote a chapter titled “[Expletive] Fairness,” which warns readers against seeking emotional closure.
“ ‘I want closure with someone’ means, ‘I want to change their mind a lot,’ ” says Sarah. “Real closure is accepting that it didn’t end well; it’s done.”
Instead, the Bennetts say people should key on resilience and standing by their values.
The book is relentlessly practical. Subchapters end with bullet-point lists: “Here’s what you wish for and can’t have,” “Here’s what you can aim for and actually achieve,” and “Here’s how you can do it.”
If your mother is an oblivious jerk, for instance, “Your goal is not to make a good relationship,” Michael says. “It’s to protect yourself, be decent to her, and make it as good as it can be.”
“It’s not, ‘abandon all hope,’ ” says Sarah. “So much of my father’s approach is like the 12 steps: Figure out what you can change.”
Profanity, the Bennetts say, can help. “When something’s scary, threatening, or difficult,” says Michael, “saying, ‘[Expletive] it’ is a way to get your courage up.”
In the book, and on their advice website, the Bennetts adopt the voice of a comedic, profane Ann Landers. Michael develops the ideas, and Sarah amplifies her dad’s humor into comedy riffs.
They do it in person, too, one day over coffee in Jamaica Plain. Michael, a thin, mustachioed blond guy with glasses, speaks quietly, while his tall, dark-haired daughter responds with a loud voice and serrated wit.
It’s not that feelings are stupid, they explain, it’s that they can distract us from making important decisions.
“You say, ‘Yeah, that’s an understandable feeling, but that isn’t going to happen,’ ” says Michael, “or, ‘I appreciate that it’s horrible, but what are you going to do about it?’ ”
“Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too many days with small children,” says Sarah, “but that notion of, ‘BUT I WANT IT! BUT I’M ANGRY!’ — that’s what 4-year-olds say!”
Michael says the book reflects changes in the psychiatric field during his career, such as a growing acceptance of therapy’s limits and an emphasis on problem-solving over expression of painful emotions. “It was very axiomatic in the field that if you shared those feelings, you’d feel better,” Michael says. “And so often, when you shared feelings, what you’d have is a fight.”
Some of Michael’s patients have read the book. “They’ll say things like, ‘It really just sounds like a conversation with you,’ ” he says.
“A lot of his approach, from what I’ve heard, is to say things that are a little [expletive], to use the clinical term,” says Sarah. “If you make the patients laugh, it knocks them out of their rut.”
“Usually, if you get the humor, then we’re both having fun,” Michael says, “and you’re probably saying funny things yourself. Maybe you didn’t get your hand held, but you got a perspective, and hopefully a positive way forward.”
Now and then, though, Michael’s humor shocks a new patient. “If somebody isn’t getting it,” he says, “I certainly try to back off, have a regular conservation, and shut up.”
The Bennetts have promoted “[Expletive] Feelings” with a few public appearances — “We did the Brooklyn to Brookline tour,” says Sarah. Surprisingly, they’ve also done a lot of radio and TV, from WBUR to bro-ish morning shows to religious stations. They’ve discovered various ways to describe their book on the air without incurring the wrath of the FCC.
“You couldn’t say ‘F’ on television — it’s like pre-crime or thought crime,” Sarah says. “The viewer then knows what ‘F’ means, so we’d just say ‘blank.’ ” Their favorite euphemism came from a religious broadcaster in Canada, who asked them to excise one particular swear word and use “donkey bums” instead.
The Bennetts are almost finished writing a sequel, “[Expletive] Love,” for people struggling to get their relationships right. Their publisher, Simon and Schuster, hopes to publish it on Valentine’s Day 2017.
“Just because you’re really in love, and one person loves you back, doesn’t mean you’re any closer to a good partnership,” Michael says. “And if you’re not, that love is going to go pretty bad before too long.”