Dr. Arlene Feinblatt discusses her work as chief psychologist with Dr. John Sarno, a pioneer in mind-body medicine.
Dr. Feinblatt discusses their unique relationship and groundbreaking work on psychosomatic disorders, which focused on the role of emotions, particularly anger and childhood trauma, in chronic pain.
Despite facing skepticism from colleagues, their collaboration yielded valuable insights on therapy and the need for open-mindedness. Dr. Feinblatt also emphasizes the importance of certainty in therapy and the value of interdisciplinary collaboration.
What was it like to work so closely with Dr. John Sarno?
It was a very unique relationship. We were both exploring, each coming from our own experience, him as a physician, me as a psychologist. And one thing about John Sarno was that he was very respectful of people’s knowledge.
Some physicians get anxious when they think you know too much. He was never like that. He wanted you to learn. He wanted you to know. He encouraged that. And certainly at that time, the two of us were embarking on something that for both of us, was very different in terms of the people around us.
I mean, he had difficulty being accepted by other physicians because I’m sure a big portion of it was their own threat to their own psyche and their own ego and their own box.
A lot of my colleagues didn’t understand what I was doing. They thought it was sort of mumbo jumbo. A lot of them had their own chronic pain problems and couldn’t see any - I mean, these are psychologists - but they couldn’t see any psychology connected to it.
It was very difficult, but we did have each other. And we had the interns that I brought in to learn, who were always very respectful of one another because we were all learning at the same time.
I would speak to Dr. Sarno and I never called him John. I mean, I worked with him for 40 years. I never called him John. To me, he was always Dr. Sarno. And we would speak frequently during the day.
We’d think nothing of calling one another and saying, ‘Oh, I just had an interesting session with XYZ. And this came up. What do you think about that?’ I mean, it was very unique.
Dr. Sarno was so certain.
Absolutely he was. You need somebody saying to absolutely look at this. In the beginning, when we started developing these ideas, you know, about the goodism and the problems people had with anger, and the childhood traumas, he picked up on these ideas and ran with them.
It wasn’t that we started out with the idea, ‘Oh, rage is such a big topic for these patients, or childhood trauma.’ We were just feeling our way. And fortunately, amazingly, we did all right, even from the beginning.
I think one of the reasons you did well right from the start is because you were being scientists. You were you were open.
You know, you don’t have to have the answers. You have to be open. The patient will tell you when you’re right.
What Dr. Sarno and I really tried to work on with people was that anger is an emotion. It’s not good at bad. It’s an emotion. What you do with your anger is a different story.
And so anger gets this very bad rap, rage gets this very bad rap. But the emotion is just an emotion. And the more you can learn how to deal with it in a positive way, the less of a problem it is.
Did you have the same certainty that Dr.Sarno had?
Well, I had the certainty that I could help people. Was I always absolutely sure when somebody walked into my office that they were suffering from a psychosomatic disorder? No, I’m not a physician. I can’t gauge that.
But I never had that problem with patients because I was so lucky to have him that doubt was never an issue in the therapy.
Even if you’re not sure about a diagnosis, the person has a problem. You’re there to help them with the problem, whatever that problem is. And if they have doubt and uncertainty, it is going to affect the length of time they’re going to be in therapy to get rid of this. That’s for sure.
If you have a physician to work with, they can address these things. If you don’t, I would never argue with a patient about something that’s outside my sphere of expertise. I can’t diagnose. I wouldn’t even begin to try.
I can say, ‘Whatever the cause of this is, let’s try to work on the idea that if you become more comfortable with your emotions, that’s going to help regardless.’
I think that’s all as a therapist we can do.
You’re not forcing anything on them, but you’re there to help.
What you need to do is tie in one event or one anecdote of their chronic pain, with something that went on in their lives.
The first time you do that, that’s it. It blows the whole thing up.