Psychological health

Hidden Mentors: Sophie Freud and Me

Sometimes people can influence you, and you don’t even realize it happened until long into your career. Although I’ve been thinking a lot and writing about mentors lately, my reaction to the death of my former teacher, Sophie Freud, surprised me a bit. I didn’t realize until now how great a teacher she was in my life – in fact, I never thought of her as one. Then she died, and I realized – albeit too late – how much she had done to inspire me.

Sophie Freud was influential on many people, both publicly and academically.

Although she was the granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, Sophie did not follow in the footsteps of her famous grandfather; She spent most of her career instead challenging and eventually disavowing his theories of psychoanalysis. She said, “I’m very skeptical about a lot of psychoanalysis.” Boston Globe in 2002. “I think it’s such a narcissistic indulgence that I can’t believe.”

I loved the way The The New York Times She described her reaction to her grandfather in her obituary:

While he often challenged the Victorian patriarchal view of female sexuality, she wrote, “He reflected in his theories the belief that women are secondary rather than the norm.” As for his conclusion that “women fall in love with their male therapists forever,” she said, he reasoned such associations as transmission.

Professor Freud said, “He said it doesn’t matter, the woman gets over it afterwards, but I don’t agree. Then the women go to another therapist to get over it.”

Sophie Freud (who, incidentally, never went into therapy herself) became instead interested in childcare and introducing feminism into the field of social work. After receiving her Ph.D. from Brandeis University, she became the Head of the Human Behavior Program at Simmons College of Social Work (now Simmons University) and subsequently spent her career teaching, leading, inspiring…even proving her identity as a true “person” (she arrived at school on a bicycle A bright red fiery in something like a spacesuit until she was in her seventies!).

Sophie Freud

Source: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock

Sophie was a solid academic and had a shocking presence. She was also a woman who influenced me more than I realized when this was happening. It wasn’t until I read her obituary that I realized how important it was in shaping my career.

Getting to know the hidden guide:

I arrived “early” into the graduate program at Simmons School of Social Work, right after graduating from my job at age 21. Most students of social work spend some time in the real world first. Professor Freud, quietly, admitted that the other students were in fact “more sophisticated”. This definitely put me in my place! I don’t know if she said that to verify my experience or to mobilize me for success, although I doubt the former. I didn’t know how much her observation would motivate me – mostly in an attempt to prove her wrong!

Over the course of my year as a student, I’ve learned to love the nuances of being human and the experiences of inner and personal relationships. Not only did she curate a list of favorite articles – a gift of a lifetime from Syed – but her passion for experiences and dynamics taught me to look at and enjoy others through a similar lens.

It taught what was at the time heretical thinking: that unconscious forces were not the only factor to pay attention to, and that social and family systems were just as important. I have fully embraced this thinking in my own practice.

I learned that my enthusiasm when sitting with people made me as influential to them as it was to me, albeit in a different way. I was touched by her passion for psychological differences. I would sit in her classes in awe when she would discuss the weekly readings or what made people remember. Her fascination with human behavior was powerful and contagious.

From her I learned that what may be obvious to us as clinicians can translate to our clients as perspective and wisdom.

None of that means she was a comfortable person to be around – far from it! Weird and eccentric in many ways, she hardly smiles, and when she did, it was hard to know how to explain it: mischievous, sure, but compulsive or honest? We didn’t know.

Now I understand that she was sincere, expressing the joy of sharing her enthusiasm with her students. During group sessions in the simulated therapy group, she would sit and curl up, seeming to pay more attention to her scarves than ours. But she didn’t miss a beat. She was well aware of her role and what we create together as individuals and as a group. She didn’t have to do the work for us because we did it ourselves by facilitating her.

I often felt like I didn’t live up to her expectations, and this prompted me to put in more effort and work even more to find something elusive she was looking for. Maybe it was in my best interest the whole time.

In those days, students would write articles by hand in blue notebooks; Professors were often seen around campus balancing a pile of them. In one of my own, I wrote about getting out. It was still new to me, and I didn’t feel completely comfortable with my self-understanding. I was taking a risk, using an article from graduate school to describe my experience. To my surprise – and gratitude – Professor Freud described herself as being “impressed” by the article. Her subsequent comments showed that she put a lot of thought and care into what I was saying about my life. It has enabled me to take more risks throughout my career.

Thirty-nine years later – now – I have read about her death, and I am truly saddened. Sophie Freud was never a friend, but I didn’t really realize what she was in my life: a vital and valuable teacher. Over time, I’ve been thinking about what she said in class, and how her fascination with humans inspired me—but I didn’t do it often, and I never did for very long. Yet it is reflected in every interaction I have with clients and supervisors: I can see its impact as I work with people to interpret their lives and work.

Did you know how important it was to me? Probably. Mostly not. Strong masters are not always aware of their impact on others. But I will be forever grateful for the impact you have had on me. Her casual relationship and serious nature left me in awe and I wonder if I had the measure at the time; I now realize I already did. Had I known this earlier, I might have reached out to her and thanked her.

I guess I’m not alone in this experience.

Sometimes, we don’t suppose our biggest influencers and sources of inspiration are them. Make your consciousness open to the powerful influencers who are your best teachers, and thank them now, before they give it up too.

Thank you Sophie Freud.

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