The Uses of Disenchantment

Magic fulfills the wish that we could have powers to be beyond who we sadly suspect we are. As children, magic explains the inexplicable nature of external forces (i.e. parents, teachers, death) and internal ones (unconscious drives, nameless attachments, inconsolable sorrows and consuming rages.)

Anyone who plays WoW, Elder Scrolls, or Dungeons & Dragons, knows that enchanted weapons and armor are valuable items to be gotten. They raise our stats, make us stronger, more intelligent agile, or resistant to harm. They fulfill the wish that we could be more than we are.

That being the case, the profession of Enchanting is a very valuable one to master. To do so is to be able to craft our own items for use or to sell. And to master the skill requires not only enchanting practice, but also the act of disenchantment.

Disenchantment is the breaking down of an enchanted item into its component reagents. In Skyrim this consists of taking the enchanted item and destroying it, which allows you to discover the enchantment. So, for example, if you come across an Iron Battleaxe of Scorching, you have a choice. You can enjoy your new battleaxe which will add fire damage to the physical damage you do using it. Or you can disenchant it, and learn how to imbue any weapon with the ability to do fire damage.

In World of Warcraft disenchanting items is necessary to provide you with the reagents, or raw materials, to do other enchantments. Learning the enchantment is done separately, by training or reading a recipe, but disenchantment is still necessary to break down enchanted items into components you can use for other enchantments. Enchantment operates in the domain of creation and destruction, attachment and loss. I can remember feeling many the hesitation as I was about to take an Epic staff I’d used for months and dissolve into Abyss Crystals. Even though I knew that I was going to get a new weapon with a strong enchantment out of it, disenchantment required sacrafice.

Many patients labor under the illusion that the purpose of therapy is to make you feel good. I have always maintained that that is not true. Therapy is not about making you feel good, but rather about learning how to not to feel good. It’s about learning how to experience and tolerate those unpleasant feelings in a different way than we’ve learned to previously. People abuse substances, food, sex, and yes, occasionally video games because they cannot tolerate feelings that don’t feel “good.” Who wants to feel inconsolable sorrow, thwarted passion, grief, terror, or hopelessness?

And so people come to us wanting symptom reduction, not character building; relief, not the raising of unmentionable wishes and fears to consciousness. At first, we often provide those other things to be sure. A compassionate ear to listen, a calming influence, a holding environment. But in the end, therapists are alchemists and enchanters: Nothing new can be created by our patients without something being destroyed. Something must be given up to create something else.

Consider this: Neurosis is like an enchanted armor that we can no longer use. Maybe we have outgrown it. Maybe it never really fit well but it was the best compromise we could come up with. Maybe it buffed up our strength stats when we really needed more intelligence to play our class effectively. For whatever reason, it is no longer helping us, in fact it has created distress.

Symptom reduction alone won’t solve this problem. It may alleviate our distress for the moment, relieve pain enough to create the “space” between feeling and behavior so that we can begin to do the longer-term work.

That’s where disenchantment comes in. We need to take the item, the neurotic conflict, and break it down into the components that create it. What is the wish and the worry? What causes the guilt? Just what are we so afraid of that we can’t look at it directly?

This doesn’t always have to be painful, and therapists shouldn’t use this as a justification for brutality. But to think that the process of therapy is not going to be uncomfortable and difficult; is not going to take some time and hard work is pretty much delusional. If our enchantments could have gotten us any farther we wouldn’t have given them up. Most addicts and alcoholics would have used longer if they could have. If they could have enjoyed one more binge, party or high, they would have.

Insurance companies love to focus on symptom reduction, and a narrow view of what evidence-based treatment really is. Symptoms are problems to be solved, rather than signposts pointing towards underlying issues. And although this is short-sighted, it is understandable: 10 sessions costs a lot less than weekly sessions. And yet, the most recent research I’ve read indicates that psychodynamic therapy is as effective as CBT and other therapies, and in fact more effective in sustaining longterm change.

Bruno Bettelheim, a psychoanalytic thinker, is perhaps best known for his book The Uses of Enchantment. In it he discusses how the themes of fairy tales often symbolize the real emotional and psychological struggles that children go through. Through the projections of stories, children are able to work through their fears in remote and tolerable ways. In a similar way, Klein speaks of the paranoid-schizoid position where the parent is split into good and bad objects, the fairy godmothers and evil witches of fairy tales.

Disenchantment, from a Kleinian lens, leads to the depressive position. It is where we hopefully get to, despite the depressing name, that point when we realize that people are not either all-good, or all-bad, but both good and bad, nurturing and depriving, gratifying and frustrating. In other words, human. The world seems less magical in some ways, and that is experienced as a loss. Sounds depressing, eh? So what is gained?

There is a practice in Tibetan Buddhism called tonglen. In this form of meditation, you begin by touching the tender spot of whatever is sorrowing or distressing to you. Say you’ve lost your loved one. Allow yourself to feel that grief for a moment, really feel it. What an awful wrenching feeling that is. You may reflect that nobody should have to feel what you’re feeling right now. And yet, all over the world, there are those who have felt that, may be feeling it even as you are right now. So you breathe in, and imagine breathing in all of that grief as if for that moment you could take it into your heart so that nobody else would have to feel it. And then you imagine yourself breathing out comfort and security and everything that is the opposite of grief and suffering to the world and to all those in it who need it. You reverse the cycle of trying to avoid pain and grasp pleasure, and in doing so generate compassion.

That is the use of disenchantment; breaking down our fantasies that we can avoid pain and transmuting it into compassion for others. Imagine if you were to really accept that everyone is human and fallible and mortal. If you were able to walk around tomorrow and remain conscious that everyone you meet is dying, would you treat them in the same way as you did today?

Interested in working with me online or in person? Check out the Gamer Therapy and Work With Me Pages!

And if you want to learn more about gaming and psychotherapy, you can always buy my book

Comments

  1. Brillant!

  2. Art Zoller Wagner says:

    I’d be interested in hearing about what results you have had, sharing this metaphor with your clients. I could imagine that some would find the idea very helpful, a way to challenge themselves to take the risks to work on the underlying issues.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Hi Art,

      The closest things to stories about my results are in the blog and my book. Unfortunately, because I don’t discuss my patients online, it means I can’t discuss the results directly. This is one of the byproducts of protecting patient privacy and modeling radical transparency. I wish I could share more details to “prove” my point, but I can’t πŸ™

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