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Frank Pittman on Growing Up and Taking Responsibility

Frank Pittman on Growing Up and Taking Responsibility

by Victor Yalom

Renowned psychiatrist and family therapist Frank Pittman minces no words about his no-nonsense approach to psychotherapy, his love of movies, and why therapists shouldn't be neutral.
Victor Yalom: I appreciate you fitting this time into your busy schedule at the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference (2000) for this interview.
Frank Pittman: I love being interviewed.
VY: Really? Why?
FP: Because I like to get that much attention from somebody,especially somebody who may ask me something that hasn't been asked before,and stimulate some thought.
VY: I like to stimulate people.
FP: Great.
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Grow Up!

VY: Your book has a bold title. It's called Grow Up! How'd you come up with that title?
FP: My first book, Turning Points, was about treating families in transitions and crises. The original title was Shit Happens, and they changed it.
VY: They?
FP: My publisher. I wrote another book, about infidelity, entitled Screwing Around, and they changed the title to Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy. So I wrote a book about men and masculinity, about fathers and sons and the search for masculinity. And the title was Balls. They changed it to Man Enough. So I figured I could write a book called Grow Up about—really it's about the happiness that comes from joining the adult generation, rather than sticking with the narcissism of being in the child generation, the generation to whom much is owed and who feels picked on allthe time. So I called it Grow Up! I never thought for a moment they'd keep that title, but they did. And then the day the book came out the publisher went bankrupt. And has not been heard from since!

... Continue Reading Interview >>
VY: So maybe they should have changed that title?
FP: Maybe they should have changed the title. The book's doing okay; it's just that the publisher is not. They sold the paperback rights to St.Martin's Press, which is doing pretty well with it.
VY: Can you summarize the thesis of Grow Up?
FP: The thesis is that people who feel like victims (people who feel that they're helpless and they need other people to do for them) are not going to be as happy as people who see themselves as competent adultsAnd
we've got a society full of good people who somehow get stuck in adolescence.
we've got a society full of good people who somehow get stuck in adolescence. And I think we have that because we haven't really seen much in the way of adults making marriages work, making life work. Kids instead grow up seeing adults complaining because the adults aren't children. So the children can fight like hell to make sure they don't have to become adults.
VY: What do you mean, "adults aren't children?"
FP: These adults are behaving like children. They screw around on their marriage, they pout, they refuse to parent their children and instead complain to their children because the children aren't performing better for the glory of the parent. We've got a society in which adulthood is not valued. And as a result, we wind up with very unhappy people. See, if you find yourself in the child generation, you really have a choice: you can declare whether you're going to be an adult or a child. You know you're declaring that you're going to be a child when you go around blaming your life choices on your parents, when you go around avoiding getting stuck in adult positions, getting stuck in adult jobs, adult professions, and try to maintain the child's position. You're being a child if you go around trying to get everyone to see you as a child, by dressing yourself up as a child.
People wear baseball caps now, trying to look as if they're 12-year old children, so nobody will expect them to be grown up. We've got a world full of people who are trying to do that because they're terrified of moving into adulthood.
People wear baseball caps now, trying to look as if they're 12-year old children, so nobody will expect them to be grown up. We've got a world full of people who are trying to do that because they're terrified of moving into adulthood. And what they don't realize is that if they felt empowered enough to be adults, their ability to achieve happiness would be enormously enhanced.
VY: I've been struck by your bold and repeated use of the word "happy." In fact, the subtitle of your book is How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult. People don't talk much about the actuality, or even the possibility, of being happy.
FP: They don't talk about being happy. What they talk about is not being happy. What they talk about is that if they don't get their heart's desire, they will surely be miserable. If they're not so crazily in love—with their job, with their wife, with their child—that they just perform their responsibilities automatically, out of overwhelming passion, then they will surely be miserable.
There's this great belief that if you are not getting everything your heart desires, you will be miserable. This is a dangerous belief. The failure to be blessed with a life that is a constant state of ecstatic wonder becomes a psychiatric emergency.
There's this great belief that if you are not getting everything your heart desires, you will be miserable. This is a dangerous belief. The failure to be blessed with a life that is a constant state of ecstatic wonder becomes a psychiatric emergency. All the mental health people jump in and say, "Oh, my God. They're not happy. Call the fire department. Maybe these people shouldn't have gotten married. Sorry about the six kids and all. But maybe they shouldn't have gotten married. Maybe we'll have to get them divorced so maybe they can be happy with the 2nd, the 3rd, the 4th, the 5th, or the 6th husband or wife." I look at these people who aremiserable in their marriages and their lives, and I think, I have the responsibility to them, to make them aware that they have the capacity to bring about their adult selves—that they have aresponsibility to their children that's going to affect the second half oftheir life enormously if they don't fulfill it. Maybe I've got aresponsibility to the two other people that these folks would marry next if they don't learn how to be married the first time around.
VY: You have previously mentioned your marriage as being a big source of happiness for you.
FP: It's been a big source of reality for me. Some days it's kind of irritating. There's a wonderful line at the end of American Beauty when Kevin Spacey has been shot, is dying. His wife has been messing around on him, can't stand him. He's looking at the pictures of his family as he dies. He says it's all coming to him, as if all of it's happening at the same time. "And the only thing we can feel is grateful." Now, to have somebody who's willing to put up with you for forty years, to have somebody who knows you; it makes you so appreciative. Somebody else may have a better turned elbow, cuter toes, or something like that. Somebody else might tell jokes better or cook better or do better carpentry, or some such thing. But that seems so unimportant compared with having somebody really care about you. Somebody who knows you.
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James Dean and Modern Malaise

VY: How did you personally come into adulthood. When did you grow up? And what helped you to grow up?
FP: I grew up in the 1950s. At that time, adulthood was popular. We aspired to it. It was the pre-James Dean era. See, in 1955, James Dean came along. Elvis Presley came in the same year. But James Dean appeared in three movies, in all of which he sat around and whimpered and suffered because his father, or father-figure, was not loving him enough. And then he sullenly collapsed on some woman, taking like a child and giving nothing back.
VY: For the benefit of those of us in the next generation trying to grow up, could you remind us what these three movies are?
FP: The first was East of Eden, then Rebel Without A Cause and Giant. The plot was the same in all three of them. The guy who could not grow up because he had not received his father's approval, and trying to get a woman to take care of him. These were the children of what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation," the generation that fought World War II. The men were the heroes that saved the world. All they had to do was risk their lives. They came back home to be worshiped by women and be taken care of and granted all manner of privileges. Only their sons didn't want to go risk their lives. They didn't want to run the risk of dying.
VY: You're talking about Vietnam?
FP: Well, the world was changing before Vietnam. Remember, there was Korea before Vietnam. The world changed a lot between 45 and 68. The boys of that generation were expected to grow up to be little soldiers. And they began to resist that effort. They began to refuse. In many ways this was a good thing; in many other ways, it was a very bad thing. Because while we ended up having a generation that produced social change, we also had a generation that was highly resistant to the idea of growing up.
VY: So it's a good thing if growing up doesn't necessarily mean being soldiers and going out to kill people.
FP: But
growing up does mean that while your feelings are very interesting, they're not the only thing that's going on in the universe today.
growing up does mean that while your feelings are very interesting, they're not the only thing that's going on in the universe today. And however lovely your feelings are, and however fascinating your complicated state of mind, there are things that need to be done. And if you're going to take on a partner, there are responsibilities there. If you're going to have children, there are responsibilities there. And you can't really run out on those responsibilities and maintain much of a senseof honor and integrity. You can't run out on those responsibilities and really grow up in a way that makes you proud of your life's choices in the second half of your life.
VY: So I hear you saying that one thing that helped you grow up was the historical times that you lived in. Growing up was expected; it wasn't really a question.
FP: I was never given a choice. I went to college in four years. I was not given a choice of taking six or seven or eight years because I wanted to "experience" myself. Nobody in my generation was.
VY: But what personally helped you to grow up? To really grow up, not just to fulfill those roles.
FP: By the time I was 25, I was a doctor, a husband, and a father. I might very well have wanted to go off to Tahiti and paint. But that just didn't seem like much of an option! If you don't consider it an option, then you don't go through the rest of your life pouting because you didn't get to do it. I mean, at a certain age, I wanted to run off with the circus! At another age, I would have liked to have been a cowboy. By the time I was moving toward adulthood, certainly by the time I got out of college, it became apparent that hey, I've got the abilities that are required to become an adult. If I become an adult, then I will have all of these rights and privileges. I will have honor and integrity, and I will be respected by all sorts of people. There will be all manner of good things that will happen to me.
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Who the Hell is Frank Pittman to Tell Me Anything?

VY: So you became a psychiatrist, and you noticed that a lot of your patients haven't grown up. They come into your office, and some of them know some things about you and what your values are. I can imagine them are thinking, "Who the hell is Frank Pittman to tell me anything? To tell me how I should grow up?"
FP: "What an ass! How dare he tell me anything. He's just like my daddy; he's just like my mamma; he's just like the assistant principal. How can anybody tell me what to do? I want what I want when I want it. I'm not going to grow up and you can't make me!"
VY: So whatever they know about you beforehand , probably within the first five minutes that you open your mouth, they're going to get a strong sense of what your values are.
FP: Most of my patients have heard about me before they come in.
VY: I don't believe in pure therapeutic neutrality per se, but it seems to me that you're on the very opposite end of that spectrum. So if people get such a clear sense of what your values are, how does that impact your work with them?
FP: I am empowering. I'm making them aware that they have the power to do things they didn't know they could do. They really do not know that they can act contrary to their emotions. When they feel mad, they react mad. When they feel sad, they act sad. When they feel bored, they act bored. They are not aware that if they behave differently from the way they feel, in some sort of thought-out way, they may very well achieve exactly what they're seeking.
VY: According to Frank Pittman?
FP: I don't have control over them. I can't make them do what they don't want to do. I can just make them aware that they can do things differently from the way they're doing them.
VY: What you bring to the work, your values, your views—it has got to have a big impact on your relationships with your clients. You bring a lot of yourself into the room.
FP: A lot of myself is in the whole office. My wife runs the office. Until recently, my daughter was working with us.
VY: She's a psychologist?
FP: Both of my daughters are psychologists. One of them I write with, and one of them I do therapy with. But when people come in, they really enter my life. Much more than I enter theirs. They're in my space; they're in my milieu. They're experiencing me and how I think and how I evaluate things and how I make decisions.
VY: Again, how does that impact the type of therapy you do?
FP: They're perfectly capable of saying, "I'm not going to do it and you can't make me." They're perfectly free to not come back. When I make people aware that they don't have to break off contact with their families, they don't have to quit their job, they don't have to leave their marriage, they don't have to put their children up for adoption. That they really could do something different. Despite the fact that they're doing exactly what they're feeling, they could do something different that might produce a different outcome. And while I might offer one possibility or two or seventeen possibilities about something they might do differently, they can come up with a whole lot of possibilities on their own. Many more than I can come up with.

My contribution is my optimism that they have the power to do things differently from the way they have been taught to do things. From the way they have been accustomed to doing things. I see people who are violent; I see a lot of people who are screwing around; I see people who are kicking and hollering at their kids all the time; I see people who jump from job to job to job, finding something to be displeased with in all of them. These people don't have to do that. It's self-defeating for them to do it, and I can make them aware.
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The Movies and the Psychotherapeutic

VY: How do you make them aware? What do you do?
FP: Send them to the movies. Send them out reading novels. The novels and the movies are opportunities to examine people making decisions. Feeling what they're feeling, thinking it out, taking action of one sort or another. They get to spend a few hours in somebody else's head, in somebody else's life. I tell them stories. I tell them stories from my own life; I tell them stories from other people's lives. I just go through the process with them of how they make the decisions that they're making. That just because they're mad at somebody doesn't mean they have to hit them. Just because somebody cuts them off in traffic, they don't have to shoot them. They don't have to do just what they feel like doing. If they see somebody who turns them on, they don't have to jump them. If the kids get to them, they don't have to kick them. But there are people who don't know that.
VY: You have a love of the movies.
FP: I have a love of the movies. I do. I want my myths to come at me bigger than life. I want big myths. I want John Wayne-, Katherine Hepburn-size myths. I have this great love for the movies that I guess comes from growing up in rural Georgia and Alabama and thinking that happiness was elsewhere. That there must be great excitement elsewhere. It took me coming into adulthood to appreciate what we had in those little towns. Because at the time I wanted to get to the big city. I wanted to get to Atlanta.
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No Neutralily and No Pussyfooting Around

VY: I can imagine someone reading this interview might think, "Frank Pittman's in there kind of sermonizing, telling people what to do," rather than helping people explore and come up with their own solutions. Can you try and give a picture of how you help them reach these decisions?
FP: I was looking at a tape I made about ten years ago, interviewing a couple. The man had been screwing around for 20 years. His wife found out about it. And in talking with him about it, he just assumed that all the other men were doing the same sort of thing that he was doing. And the magic moment in all of this was when he said, "I must have been the only man who was feeling what I was feeling." I said, "No, no. I think we all feel that way. I think we all enjoy looking. But it feels safer if you know you're not going to act on it. What did you think everybody else was doing?" He said, "I thought everybody else was messing around just the way I was." I said, "No. Some people were and some people weren't and things generally went better for the ones who weren't."

Now, I'm not shoving anything down his throat. If you're being honest with your partner, then you have this magical thing of knowing that there's somebody who knows you, warts and all, who knows you in all your foolishness, and puts up with you anyway. And there can be no more wonderful feeling in life than that. Whereas, if somebody thinks you're perfect and you've faked them out into thinking that, the fact that that person loves you doesn't mean shit. Because they don't know you.
VY: If you don't mind, I'd like to back up and get a sense of how you evolved into the kind of active, perhaps moralistic kind of therapist that you are.
FP: Well, unfortunately I didn't get trained very well in psychiatric residency.
They were never able to convince me that I was supposed to sit there like a stuffed teddy bear after a stroke and pretend not to understand anything that was going on and not have any thoughts about it.
They were never able to convince me that I was supposed to sit there like a stuffed teddy bear after a stroke and pretend not to understand anything that was going on and not have any thoughts about it. So I got involved in working with families. I grew up in a family where everything, all explanations, were 3-generational. Everything was connected with Grandma. That was my growing up in Alabama and Georgia. They brought Nathan Ackerman and Margaret Mead and whoever I needed to teach me.
VY: Who's "they"?
FP: The Department of Psychiatry at Emory. They were just getting started; they had lots of money and very few residents. It was wonderful. A great experience. It's just that they didn't teach me how to be psychoanalytic. I became a family therapist instead. I hooked up with some people who had gotten a grant from NIMH, and went out to Denver and spent four years researching community mental health, learning how to keep people out of psychiatric hospitals by doing family therapy at home. It worked well, we got great results, we won awards--it was all fabulous. I became head of psychiatry at the local, great big charity hospital back in Atlanta, and was teaching at Emory. I did that for about four years and then went into private practice.

Finally I decided to write the book about family crises. The first step in writing the book about family crises was to write achapter on infidelity, because that was the major crisis that was coming to my attention. In my family, people didn't screw around. The ones who did, we talked about it. We used them as object lessons. So I had a pretty clear idea that this was irregular behavior. People had agreed not to do that and they were doing it, and sure enough all hell was breaking loose. Sometimes all hell was breaking loose in that they were people mad, and sometimes they had even bigger problems: they were falling in love with the people they screwed around with! God knows, this is theroad to unhappiness and instability. So I wrote this book about family crises, including the chapter about infidelity. The publisher said, "You can't write about infidelity; that's a moral issue." It's like, "Here, I'll show you all these wonderful textbooks on marriage that go on for 400, 800 pages without ever mentioning infidelity. You can do that, if you set your mind to it."

So I took it to another publisher. Then I wrote Private Lies, the one on infidelity, which was more or less for a popular audience. I had written Turning Points,the first one, the one on family crisis, with the idea that therapists could give it to their patients. I wrote Private Lies with the idea that patients would bring this to their therapists.
VY: Why?
FP: Because we were going through a
period of assuming that what therapists did was being neutral and assuring everybody that whatever damn fool thing they wanted to do was perfectly okay.
period of assuming that what therapists did was being neutral and assuring everybody that whatever damn fool thing they wanted to do was perfectly okay. That they didn't have to give any thought to the impact of their actions on anybody else.
VY: You tend to make (in your books and right now) some pretty strong and provocative generalizations about all sorts of people, including therapists.
FP: Well, pussyfooting around is time-consuming.
VY: I think a lot of therapists reading this interview are going to think, "Hey, I don't do that!"
FP: Good for them! If they don't do that, then they should send me their card and I'll send them referrals. If they are willing to take strong values, if they are willing to use their experience as therapists to mold their own values, to make sense out of life, to make sense out of the human condition and how to live it and how to make it work, then they're developing wisdom. And if they're developing wisdom by really challenging the cultural norms, challenging the social customs, and trying to figure out how things connect with one another, what actions will cause what reactions, then they're going to get wise. I've noticed that therapists who have been practicing for 10 or 15 years get over their fear of hurting people. And they begin to realize that this is a human encounter between them and somebody else. And if they can convey their experience of life, their experience of the sort of dilemmas, the sort of life stages that their patients are going through, as well as hearing what their patients have to say, then it's a collaborative effort for coming to an understanding of life.
VY: It's great when that happens.
FP:
It's marvelous. And if therapists are being honest, rather than being neutral, if they're really having fun, if they're finding the humor in the human condition, then therapists can help people go from the tragic position that their feelings must be all determining, to the comic position of believing that their survival is crucial.
It's marvelous. And if therapists are being honest, rather than being neutral, if they're really having fun, if they're finding the humor in the human condition, then therapists can help people go from the tragic position that their feelings must be all determining, to the comic position of believing that their survival is crucial. If we can get people to change in order to protect themselves from the certain disaster that will come from continuing the patterns that they're in, it becomes a dance that is marvelously celebratory. Therapy must be fun. If it's not fun, you're not doing it right.
VY: It's not always fun.
FP: Sometimes people have to go through periods of convincing you that they feel bad. Once you can convince them that you are convinced that they feel bad, then you can start talking about life and about how to make choices and what to do about the fact that they're feeling bad. What sort of action they can take, what sort of choices they can make, what sort of things they can do that can enable them to live with themselves despite the fact that their life isn't perfect, that the world isn't perfect, and they're feeling something they don't want to feel.
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Therapy is No Place for Handholding

VY: You are quite critical of traditional therapists--that they are hand-holders and don't take tough positions.
FP: I think we went through a period in which this passive, neutral approach was encouraged. My experience is that the longer therapists practice, the more comfortable they get as therapists, the less likely they are to be neutral. The less likely therapists are to be hand-holders, and the more likely they are to make this a human encounter between more or less equals, or at least equal in the sense that we're all mortal and we're all idiots and none of us is quite what we'd like to be.
VY: How long have you been practicing as a therapist?
FP: Forty years. I started my psychiatric residency forty years ago.
VY: You said a few minutes ago that you think it takes 10-15 years for a therapist to come into their own, to not be afraid.
FP: It takes 10-15 years to reach the point that they are not thinking of people in terms of their pathology. And they're not being protective of people, trying to keep them from living their lives.
VY: They're going to lead their lives anyway.
FP: Coming to the rescue is not what makes them therapeutic. It's the human encounter. It's the exploration of the movies and the novels and the life going on, the history going on. That's what's empowering.
VY: But you've got to find their language. You may love movies; that may be a great medium for you, so you'd love to send your clients out to see movies, but they may need something very different.
FP: I have clients who bring me rap music that expresses what they feel. Country music, with all those lessons in low rent reality, is full of wisdom, and opera, with all those out of shape, not very bright characters feeling everything so desperately, is full of bad examples of crisis management. I love it.
VY: So you put on the rap CD in your office and listen to it?
FP: I have dutifully listened to a whole lot of very bad music that sounds like industrial noise to me, but tells me what they feel—and what it must sound like to filter reality through their brains. But in my office I generally keep Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven playing. It keeps my brain organized, it keeps me at peace. It makes me smart.
VY: So, I'm in the 10-15 year category. You're in the 40 year category. What would you want to tell people like me and my colleagues about what you've learned?
FP: Read novels, go to movies, and normalize what you're seeing in your office. Turn it into the human condition. Turn the crises of life into stages of development.Read novels, go to movies, and normalize what you're seeing in your office. Turn it into the human condition. Turn the crises of life into stages of development.
VY: You talked about the old generation of men: that you had to fit into certain roles.
FP: I don't know if I had to. I had the opportunity to.
VY: But there weren't a lot of choices in that regard.
FP: No.
VY: So now we do live in a different world. And you're saying, "There's some great value in these obligations. These expectations that you'll grow up and be a man, and a woman, and accept that responsibility."
FP: The beauty of it is that it's now possible. Because we've largely done away with gender. Gender no longer has to be determining. That helps enormously.
VY: I think we also have a greater opportunity that we can do that: that we can be men and women and yet have a much fuller, broader definition of what masculinity or femininity is.
FP: What people don't understand—and this is the reason I keep talking about it—is how much happier they'd become if they'd accept the responsibility for the give and take of their relationships. If they accept the responsibility for parenting or marriage or careers or their social responsibilities— picking up the trash on the highway, or whatever it is. If they see that they're privileged to live with these people who are willing to put up with them, they're privileged to live in this society, on this planet and that they owe something back, they'll end up feeling very good about themselves.
VY: That sounds like a good place for us to stop.
FP: It's fun.
Life is fun, therapy is fun! But only if you're not feeling like a victim.
Life is fun, therapy is fun! But only if you're not feeling like a victim.

Copyright © 2001 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved. Published June 2001.
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Frank PittmanFrank Pittman, MD (1935-2012) was the author of Grow Up! How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult (1999), Private Lies: Infidelity and Betrayal of Intimacy (1990) and Turning Points, a book about treating families in transitions and crises. He is also featured on the video Empowerment Family Therapy. Dr. Pittman practiced out of Atlanta, Georgia, where he was active as a psychiatrist and family therapist from 1962 until his death in 2012. 
Victor Yalom, PhD is the founder, president and resident cartoonist of Psychotherapy.net. He also maintains a part-time practice in individual, group and couples therapy in San Francisco and Mill Valley. He has conducted workshops in existential-humanistic and group therapy in the US, Mexico, and China, and also leads ongoing consultation groups for therapists.

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CE credits: 1
Learning objectives: • Consider new perspectives on the meaning of growing up.
• Increase awareness of the connection between happiness and being an emotionally healthy adult.
• Reflect on how therapists can use their own moral and social values in their therapeutic work. 
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